I spent the past week on vacation in Israel. On my final day there, I accompanied my parents on a series of mimouna visits.
Mimouna is a custom practiced by Israeli-Jews of Moroccan heritage (my father’s side of the family) although it has now has been quite widely adopted in Israel. It involves devoting the last day of the Passover holiday to visiting the homes of as many relatives and friends as you can. No matter how near or distant, and regardless of whether you have said a word to each other in the past year, you are welcome to just show up, no invitation needed.
At mimouna you see people you would never otherwise normally see, and you can catch up on all the news of the year since the previous mimouna (or in my case, the two decades since my last appearance). Plus, the reward for showing up at someone’s house unannounced is endless cups of mint tea accompanied by diabetes-inducing quantities of home-made sugary delicacies. At night there is thumping Arabic music and high pitched ululating; if you’re not careful, you can even get dragged into mad bouts of Moroccan-style belly-dancing.
As we moved from house to house, I felt like a curiosity of sorts for my various aunts, uncles and cousins – I was that intriguing family member who lives in “the East”, in a faraway, slightly mythical place called Singapore, which is “almost China, no?”
It occurred to me that living in Asia, I don’t fully appreciate the fascination that those further away have with all things China. To my family in Israel, China is a strange, distant place, regarded with a mixture of awe and bewilderment, tinged with a fear that despite knowing next to nothing about the country, its people and its culture, this emerging super-power is almost certainly going to profoundly impact their lives.
I therefore found myself fielding endless questions about China, and in broken Hebrew I described some of my experiences there over the past years. Three mini-stories in particular were a hit:
Mini-story One: Negotiation, Chinese Style
The first story relates to an incident that occurred about three weeks ago, at a gas project in rural China operated by the company I work for. As is the case everywhere in the world, if you want to drill new gas wells you first need to negotiate and agree a payment to compensate the relevant land-owners for the use of their land while you drill on it.
In rural China, because land is often communally owned and society is strictly hierarchical, the usual procedure is to negotiate with the head of the village (normally the local Communist party boss) and make the compensation payment to him. He then distributes the funds to the affected villagers.
Our company had followed this process meticulously, agreed a compensation payment for some new well-sites, and made the agreed payment to the village head-man, who the next day promptly disappeared with the money, and has not been heard from since.
A few days later our local employees were approached by the newly appointed replacement village head-man. He requested that the compensation payment be made again, only this time to him. According to Village Head Man #2, the fact that Village Head Man #1 had absconded with the money was our problem, not his, and really, too bad that we had already paid compensation, we’d just have to pay a second time.
When this request for double payment was politely but firmly refused, Village Head Man #2 was distinctly annoyed. So he returned later that same day accompanied by a few of his very best “friends”, who proceeded to argue their case by bashing up several of our staff.
What transformed this act of pure thuggery into a star performance in the bizarre theatre of Chinese business, is this: having engaged in activity that anywhere else would generally be considered criminal and possibly something to go into hiding over, Village Head Man #2 rather unexpectedly proceeded to hand out his business card to our recently assaulted employees, literally as they sat on the side of the road nursing their bloody noses. And he left them with a comment to the effect of: “so you have my contact details; call me sometime and we can talk”. Frankly, I am surprised he hasn’t since tried to friend them on Facebook as well.
Mini-story Two: Ghost Drinking
No business dealing in China is complete without a banquet meal. At these feasts, insipid Western-style renditions of Chinese food are completely absent. Instead, at a Chinese banquet you will encounter a spread of the most weird, wonderful and exotic foods imaginable. There is no animal, and certainly no part of the animal, that is considered inedible or off-limits.
At Chinese business dinners, I have tucked into intestines and testicles, shark-fins, bird’s nest (actually the dried, crusty saliva of swallows), webbed duck-feet, rotted eggs, turtles, bugs and snakes; I have had to eat chilli so hot it burnt the roof of my mouth off; I have even been offered a drink of snake blood and bile, which I somehow put away without hurling my cookies.
None of this especially concerns me – when it comes to food, I can and will try anything. My biggest problem in China has always been the drinking.
There is an old Chinese saying that, roughly translated, is: “the more you drink, the deeper your friendship is”. So Chinese banquets tend to involve endless rounds of toasting, at which everyone at the table is repeatedly required to slam down shots of baijiu – a Chinese white spirit so strong it could power the space shuttle. It is not uncommon to see people literally under the table by the end of a dinner.
It is considered rude not to participate in the toasting that goes on at these inebriating events. Books on Chinese business etiquette say that if you can’t hold your alcohol you can decline to drink on “medical grounds”, or you can opt to participate in toasts using water or juice. Don’t believe it – you can of course do this, and no-one will say anything, but trust me from personal experience, refuse the baiju and your Chinese hosts may well start to look at you with more than just a little pity and disdain; someone who might not be worth doing business with in the first place.
So in my first years of banqueting in China, I dutifully forced myself to down endless glasses of baiju – a major problem for me given that even at the best of times, all it takes is one drink and the room begins to swim before my eyes; two, and I am liable to pass out.
Or I should say this was a problem for me, because several years ago I discovered a bizarre but welcome ‘loophole’ in Chinese drinking culture. You see, although it is considered rude not to drink at a banquet, and although the use of water or juice as a substitute can be looked down on as rather sad and pathetic, it is also perfectly acceptable to bring someone along to a banquet to drink on your behalf.
Seriously. I can fill my glass with baiju, raise it and shout “gan bei” at the top of my voice, and then as everyone else drains their glass, I simply hand mine to a designated drinker who takes the shot for me, as it were. A little quirk of Chinese business practice which defies any attempt at rational explanation, but hey, it works for me.
Mini-Story Three: How to Spend It
China is a story of new money. There are countless cities and towns in China, often with populations of more than five million, where two or three local king-pins have gone from being penniless farmers or low-paid party functionaries to recently minted multi-billionaires. For these Chinese nouveau-riche, conspicuous consumption and lavish displays of wealth are often de rigueur.
I have seen my fair share of such displays in the past eight years, including, on one particularly memorable occasion, watching in shock as a 19 year old, presumably the son of some Chinese oligarch, plonked down $75,000 in cash for a high-end wristwatch in a Beijing boutique.
But, the CEO of our company tells a story which says it all. The story is of a recent visit paid to the Chairman and founder of a local energy company in a “small” Chinese city of six million people that neither of us had ever heard of before. The Chairman’s office was on the top floor of a towering skyscraper built specifically to house his business empire – the only building higher than three stories in the town.
You ride the elevator up to the top floor, and on exiting, you will see that the Chairman’s office is not simply located on the top floor, it is the top floor – a vast open plan expanse that occupies the entire top floor of the building.
That alone is not what sets this castle in the sky office apart from all others. The real defining feature of this whole-floor office is that the Chairman in question had reconstructed it into a faux movie-set scene of rural China, supposedly reminiscent of the country village in which he was born.
So on exiting the elevator, as told by our CEO, he was greeted with the absurd site of a small bubbling stream winding back and forth across the floor before him. Access to where the Chairman was sitting at his desk required strolling down a wooded pathway and crossing over the stream not once but three times, by means of quaint little wooden bridges. On one side was a little garden; to the other, a small glade of trees. And on sitting down in the meeting area, our CEO noticed that fish were swimming merrily in the stream that was flowing besides him.
All of this, recall, a few hundred metres up in the air, on the top floor of a modern skyscraper, in the middle of an otherwise featureless Chinese urban sprawl.
I retold each of these mini-stories several times while in Israel, and family and friends couldn’t help but comment on what seemed to them to be the almost unfathomable gulf between their way of life and that of people in China. So they were especially surprised – almost disbelieving – when I suggested that despite the self-evident differences, there are in fact striking similarities between many Chinese and Jewish customs, mimouna being a handy case in point.
Consider the customs of reunion dinners and family visits on the Chinese New Year, common to people of Chinese heritage all around the world (including in Singapore). On Chinese New Year’s Eve, families often gather for an annual reunion dinner, a feast involving whole extended families coming together. Often, this is the only time they meet during the year. During the course of Chinese New Year, it is normal to pay multiple visits to the homes of friends and families. Nights can be filled with firecrackers and lion dances. Chinese New Year festivities have been described as“a magnet that draws all family members back home …. less of a ceremony and more of a promise that the family will once again unite.”
I have over the years been invited to visit many Singaporean-Chinese friends on Chinese New Year, and have watched first-hand as a procession of friends and relatives – close and distant – arrive at their homes unannounced, to eat, drink and catch-up. I have always felt oddly comfortable in this setting, and now it was evident to me why: Chinese New Year customs are remarkably similar to those of Moroccan Jews at mimouna, just played out Asian style.
This observation, I hope, gave quite a few people I spoke to in Israel a fresh perspective on China, such that they might now consider the Middle Kingdom in a new way – different for sure, but not a place to be feared, and where the similarities we all share might form a basis for better understanding in the future.
It certainly felt good to be doing my bit to promote cross-cultural tolerance. So in this vein, I am thinking that at next year’s Chinese New Year celebrations in Singapore, I might bring along a belly-dancer…..