A wedding for the parents

Weddings are highly valued in the traditional Chinese mind-set. However, they also put lots of pressure on children, especially those of us who were born in the 1980s. More and more people from this generation are seeking greater independence when it comes to planning their weddings. As a member of that generation, I can say that this reflects the change in our views about love and lifestyle.

Recently I was the maid of honor at the wedding of one of my oldest friends. By the time the celebration ended, my friend and her new husband were drunk and exhausted and I felt like my legs belonged to someone else.

My friend told me a couple of months ago that her wedding was more for her parents than her fiancé and herself. “The wedding doesn’t matter to us at all. We just wanted to have a honeymoon and take some really nice pictures on the road,” she said.
Her parents, like most Shanghainese, insisted on an extravagant wedding. For them, marriage is once-in-a-lifetime affair.

I once told my parents that I was not fond of Chinese weddings. They take too much time and money. I would prefer to just get a marriage license and move on with my life. My parents were a bit angry about my “immature” decision.

My future wedding seems more important to them than it is to me. They expect a grand event where they will have a chance to get together all of their old friends and relatives. They believe a decent wedding for me would give them face and give me a happier married life from the numerous blessing I would receive from relatives and friends. My dad told me that he intends to make a speech at my wedding and I should give him a chance to do so if I truly love him.

I do love him. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that I must accede to his wishes. Most of my married friends felt the same as I do before they got married, but they all changed their minds in the end about having a wedding. One of my friends, also a Shanghainese girl, told me that decided to go through with a large wedding reception, even though it wasn’t her style. “Our parents have worked hard their whole lives for us,” she said. “We could at least consider their feelings and make them happy.”

There is, however, the cost. My married friends spent about 150,000 yuan ($23,101) on average on their weddings, much of it paid by their parents, who also bought them a home or at least paid for a down payment for a house.

Some of us have taken it for granted that paying for weddings and houses is our parents’ duty. However, others have chosen to be independent. That’s how the concept of the “naked” wedding came about, which suggests shaking off the supposition that a man’s family must win a bride with financial trappings. It suggests a new approach: no car, no house, no big wedding day – just a simple ceremony that won’t strip parents of their life savings.

I’m not saying I want a completely “naked” wedding. Maybe a “half-naked” wedding would suit me. I would love to hear my dad’s speech, just not in front of 300 guests. I understand that as parents of an only child, the older generation wants their children’s weddings to be perfect. But deep down inside, marriage is between two people. As long as we are happy, nothing else matters.

Life Without Cell Phones

My roommate and I threw a housewarming party last weekend. It’s probably one of the weirdest parties that people have ever attended because we asked everybody at the party to shut up for an hour.

The purpose was to make people realize that other than speaking with our month, we can also communicate with eye contacts, body language or any creative way we can think about. However, after ten minutes, everybody just picked out their cell phones and texted each other.

They actually texted each other when they were in the same room and laughed at the phone screen.

I couldn’t help wondering what if they don’t have cell phones like older generation. Can we live without cell phones nowadays?

I left my cell phone at home when I rushed to work two weeks ago. At first I was so panicked as all my contacts are on my phone and I was worried I might miss important calls and texts. But after a while, I realized I could better concentrated on my work without the distraction or disturbing from my cell phone though I somehow heard it vibrating somewhere near me.

Given it another thought, I spend at least 12 hours a day being completely connected via either my cell phone or my computer. There is email, micro blog, all kinds of SNS, MSN, QQ, my roommate, my Mum, etc. I constantly get interrupted by the high technology products and I feel like I am a salve to it. The only time I can be by myself and with my own thought is when I am running errands or traveling from one distraction to the next. It’s absolutely not when I am having my cell phone with me.

That day without cell phone seemed very peaceful. I finally had eight hours when no one could get hold of me and I could think again without being interrupted. As a result, I left my phone at home “intentionally” last Friday and I remembered I had that relived smile on my face when I thought of what I did.

Many people must have the same feelings: whenever you go on a relaxing vacation where there is no cell phone service or internet, you feel like you lose the connection with the world and it’s almost unbearable. I would totally feel the same if I hadn’t experienced the days without cell phone. But the truth is after the withdrawal from the digital world, life feels great. There is no phone or distraction that stops me from what I am doing and shifts my focus.

When I was waiting in line at the supermarket last Friday, I didn’t bury myself into surfing on the internet via my cell phone as I usually do, instead, I was interacted with my surrounding environment and I suddenly became aware of everything around me. That feeling was amazing.

Thus, I decide to set aside one day a week to get rid of my cell phone from now on.

At first I felt this idea was a little outlandish. But think about it this way: before cell phones came into the picture, people did just fine!

Maybe it’s time to re-evaluate our cell phones and the amount of time we spent with them. Quality time spent with family and friends can be highly enjoyable. Making spontaneous conversation with a stranger in the right place might make our day. Getting to know our neighbors and colleagues might form unbreakable bonds and lasting relationships. There are so many things to do besides playing cells phone 12 hours a day.

I know it is still impossible to live without my cell phone every day but I look forward to my one peaceful day of the week. I do this in order to become a more focused, action-oriented person. I can also better enjoy my life without the cell phone.

Why don’t you join me and feel the difference in your life?

The more national, the more international

One of my American friends took me to an instrument store in Xujiahui (downtown Shanghai) a few days ago and I was amazed by the Guzheng (a 21 -stringed plucked traditional Chinese instrument) they sell in the store. The Guzheng I have seen is made from wood but they are selling the electronic ones with pink and blue panels.

It immediately reminds me of the band called Beautiful Energy which is consisted of 12 pretty Chinese girls playing Chinese instruments. They have changed the way how we play our instruments and people define it as the new style of traditional music after they made a name for themselves in the US and Japan.

What makes it new? Firstly, they get rid of the antique wood instruments and play the ones out of recognition. Secondly, electronic effects are wildly used in the music which totally kills the special tones of traditional Chinese instruments. Some tones are even created by computer. Thirdly, these 12 girls swing and dance with the beat which is contrary to the sprits of peace and calmness of the “old” style.

Some people say every girl in Beautiful Energy is excellent instrument player with glorious education background. But I think they are just the products made from star-forming factory. Audiences like to see them dancing and wearing sexy outfits. All the skills and artistic accomplishment don’t count that much any more. Is this what we are purchasing?

As a professional pipa (Chinese lute) player and teacher, I worship Chinese traditional music and I hope I can make more people both home and abroad know about our music through my own efforts. Our traditional music should be reserved and developed with its own style and characteristics, instead of the new modern style, which has completely twisted and changed the aesthetical standard of how people see traditional music.

When the new style just established, people considered it as the succession and development of the “old” one. However, with this kind of performing style becoming mature, more down sides came up, such as finger-synching and exposed dress. This is absolutely not what we have expected. New Chinese traditional music has turned Chinese music into being vulgar and commercial. It breaks the tradition and essence to meet audience’s needs, which is not the highest state the traditional music desires to reach.

The new style adapts western music elements and adds electronic elements into Chinese traditional music which in my eyes seems neither fish nor flesh. The more national, the more global. Chinese instruments are charming and mysterious to westerners. I don’t think most of them would appreciate this new style. They want to hear and see something they haven’t experienced in the west. My Belgian client once told me that she didn’t like the idea of Chinese instrument playing western music at all because it fails to outstand Chinese instrument’s characteristics.

I was invited to play pipa in a documentary shot by a French TV station the other day. The idea was to introduce Shanghai to French audience and I was asked to wear Qipao and play a typical Chinese song. The performance was a great success because I showed the quality and spirit of traditional Chinese music. The director wouldn’t prefer a pipa player wearing low cut and mini skirt, let alone playing pipa like guitar.

I understand that nowadays people have become more blundering and have request for higher level of art. But it doesn’t necessarily mean traditional Chinese music has to put down self-esteem to meet the ordinary taste. We should definitely keep its traits and meanwhile look for a way to create more great works.

News assistants in China: an invisible, important group

By a CPJ Guest Blogger

Among the first concerns a journalist may have on coming to China as a foreign correspondent is how to communicate with the Chinese people, the majority of whom do not speak a word of English. Finding a “news assistant” is usually the answer.

I worked as a news assistant for more than five years, and I have seen how the business works. Most news assistants working with foreign journalists in China are Chinese citizens, highly educated, with advanced English skills. They form a small community of less than 200 people. They do not have the title of journalist, but they are doing a journalist’s job. Before the 1990s, these assistants were mostly appointed by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs; nowadays, most are hired directly by foreign correspondents, and they are often reluctant to be connected to the Chinese authorities.

Although the content of these jobs varies, it usually includes booking and conducting interviews, translating or interpreting, collecting news articles and newsworthy topics, writing pitches, preparing interview materials, explaining Chinese culture, social trends and political phenomena to the foreign journalists in their office, following up stories and maintaining contacts. Many of them are also asked to do other work, like arranging foreign journalists’ Chinese visas, helping them apply to various press conferences and events, and buying plane and train tickets. Their responsibilities can even extend as far as taking care of journalists’ households, preparing their personal taxes, getting leaky sinks fixed, looking for Chinese nannies for their children, helping with moving and sending pets to the vet.

During the time I was working in the field, payment for this position ranged from $200 to $2,000 per month. In recent years, the salary of those news assistants did not seem to increase. Their salary looks way higher than the average income of Chinese journalists, but in Beijing and Shanghai, where a majority of them work and live, their income is barely enough for food and rent. Many assistants have no benefits or health insurance, because quite a few foreign journalists pay them out of their own pockets. Many foreign media headquarters are unaware that these Chinese news assistants exist.

Stuck between two systems
Journalism is a dangerous occupation in China. The government punishes Chinese mainstream journalists for telling the truth, and the public does not have much respect or faith in the profession either. Journalists are often harassed, beaten and jailed, and the iron fist of censorship pushes many talented young people who still believe in journalistic ideals out of mainstream journalism. Hence they choose to work for the foreign media, despite often having no contract and limited pay with long hours.

Yet Chinese citizens are officially forbidden to contribute to the foreign media as reporters. Some of the lucky ones write for foreign papers or have their radio and TV stories aired, but they are often very cautious about using their real Chinese names, instead using an English pseudonym to avoid attention from the Chinese authorities. Sometimes, news assistants who left the foreign correspondents work for Chinese government-owned English-language media, but censorship and the bureaucratic environment in those newsrooms often drive them to abandon journalism and work in other industries.

Zhao Yan a research assistant in Beijing for The New York Times, was jailed, released, and continued to work in journalism. (Reuters)News assistants are often accused of being traitors by Chinese people who believe revealing the country’s bad side in news reports is not acceptable. Due to cultural differences, they are not always trusted by their Western employers either. But their passion for telling true stories is beyond doubt. When foreign journalists anger the Chinese authorities, deportation is the worst they can expect. But when a Chinese assistant angers the Chinese authorities, anything could happen to him. A good example is Zhao Yan, the research assistant in the Beijing bureau of The New York Times, who was jailed, released, and continued to work in journalism.

While the Western world is shocked by news of foreign journalists’ being harassed or beaten in China, many probably have no idea what their Chinese assistants might encounter. Like many activists, news assistants are frequently invited by Chinese secret police for “tea.” As three or four policemen surround a news assistant in a private room in a tea house, inquiring about what he has done to help the foreign media, what sensitive political or economic topics his employer is reporting on, threatening him with jail and accusing him of not being honest, the tea house, a place for people to exchange ideas, becomes a jail where people are punished for having free thoughts. At least three news assistants I know say that they have also experienced illegal detention by Chinese local government. When reporting with foreign correspondents, their physical safety is also threatened. Yet no one has ever really paid attention to this small group of people. They are stuck between two systems: one that seeks to punish them, and another that too often ignores them.

Needing attention
In Beijing and Shanghai, where almost all the foreign media establish their bureaus, and where the Foreign Correspondents Club of China provides support for foreign journalists, there is no organization that helps this small group of Chinese journalists-the news assistants. In the past few years, some of us realized that individual news assistants cannot protect themselves or win recognition, and started to unite unofficially through email groups and collective online discussions. They discuss day-to-day news topics, locate difficult contacts, exchange interview experiences, monitor certain assistants’ reporting trips and their safety, and provide one another with job information and working tips, as well as seeking advice on various journalistic or legal questions.

Journalism in China needs to be encouraged. This group of news assistants needs attention, too. News assistants deserve as much respect as any journalist: they are the ones spreading journalistic ideals in China on a daily basis, and they are indirectly telling the world the truth about China. If they receive attention only when they happen to be jailed, that is too late.

The author worked for international news organizations based in China for more than five years. The person’s name is not being used to prevent repercussions from Chinese authorities