Listening to Someone Different

Last week we had an international gathering in Dalgan with the heads of nine international organisations coming together from India, Africa, Mexico, Australia, the US and Europe to discuss the social, cultural and religious challenges they were facing.

There were also forty other participants listening to them, putting questions to them and sharing they own experiences.

As might be expected at such a gathering, there was a lot of discussion on the value of listening to people from completely different background but with the same human hopes and needs.  With social media narrowing our view to our own immediate concerns and world, social progress depends on getting a broader idea of what is happening and seeing the implication of sharing the one planet with millions of enthusiastic people out there with loads of different ideas and practical wisdom.

Many of the topics were familiar – the environment, the status of women, listening with young people, taking a new look at religion —  but the reason they created excitement was because of the fresh and personal way they were expressed.

People were asked to send back their reflections on what impressed them and we look forward to build on that.

The Colourful New Year


There is a colourful selection of New Year customs in Asia and they have one thing in common: they show you how to get rid of all the bad luck of last year and start anew on a path that will bring you good fortune in the New. In Ireland we try to do something similar by making good resolutions that will not repeat the mistakes of last year. However in Asia they don’t just rely on themselves, they call on a lot of helpers!  I wonder which approach is the more effective.

‘Couplets’ on red scrolls such as ‘Dragons and phoenix bring prosperity’ or simply, ‘Happy Spring Festival’ are hung beside doors.

There is a fish dish at the main meal because the words for ‘fish’ and ‘extra’ are similar, hence the greeting, ‘May you have fish every day,’ meaning may you have extra (food or luck) every day.

Food is offered to the Kitchen God so he will give a good report for last year and take care of the house for the next year.

Fortune telling is an obvious way to prepare for the next year and see if any bad luck is holding  you back.

Respect is shown to ancestors for a number of reasons including the practical hope that they will forgive any lack of attention and extend help in future.

Gifts are given to relatives and friends for similar reasons and usually they are in the shape, and  colour, of gold nuggets  (gifts of Ferrero Rocher chocolates have become very popular for that reason.) Debts should be repaid too.

Don’t wash your hair as the word for hair is like that for fortune and you dont want to wash it out on the first day of the year!

Fireworks are set off and Lion Dances danced to scare off evil spirits and start the New Year without them.

There are plenty more, if you have time to fit them in!

More on New Years

We have to wait two more weeks for the Chinese (or Lunar) New Year so maybe that’s why this blog is sticking to New Year traditions.

The latest insight comes from Dr Qiu, a researcher at Maynooth University, who told me that that the Lunar New Year celebration is not the most popular winter festival in China. He claims that Dong-zhi, the winter solstice is and that makes sense as it is the day when the sun stops its decline and begins its ascent into a new year.  When you think of how Newgrange was designed to precisely mark that moment,  we can see more resemblances between important days in ancient Ireland  and China (and Korea). Dong-zhi is celebrated as Dong-ji in Korea.

There is a story that a famous Han scholar on a cold winter’s morning saw children suffering from chilblains on their ears. He ordered his apprentices to make dumplings lamb and other ingredients and gave them to the poor to keep their ears from getting chilblains. Since then the  dumplings are shaped like ears and people, especially in the north of the country, eat them on Dongzhi. In the south there is less wheat for dumplings so instead they eat red and blue rice balls (there is  another story based on yin and yang to explain that). In Korea they ate red bean porridge called padjuk and gave gifts of calendars.

I hope these customs don’t change in a world that is gradually getting duller and limiting its menu to hamburgers, pizzas and curries.

Spot the ears?

Not just the CHINESE New Year


We talk about the Chinese New Year but it is also the Korean and Vietnamese (Tet). The Japanese also used to celebrate it on the traditional date – the second new moon after the winter solstice — but changed to the solar January 1 when the country began to modernise in 1872. Maybe they wanted to show they were moving from a moon-important agricultural society to a sun-clock checking industrial nation. However, they retained many of the ancient practices – just changed the date.

Korea is best at keeping the original customs – they observe a 15 day festival ranging from the first glimpse of a new moon till it reaches its fullness.

The day begins with donning traditional dress, performing the charae honoring ancestors, followed by rice cake soup, visits to elders, family meals, festival games and presents of money in red envelopes to younger people. There is no visiting on the third day as it is expected that by then everyone’s good will has been strained and everyone should take a rest.

The Chinese, maybe because of Mao’s efforts to destroy traditional culture, give less attention to ancestor on that day but share the gift-giving and red envelopes, set off more fireworks, consult fortune tellers and put more emphasis on wishes for material success such as the Cantonese, ‘Earn much money!’ popular greeting.  A fish is also served at the main meal with the wish, ‘May you have fish every year’. ‘Fish’ has a similar pronunciation to ‘extra’ so the sentiment is ‘have extra every year.’

In modern China, a big event, not to be missed, is the New Year Special on China Central TV. It’s  more popular than the Queen’s Christmas speech in England and the emphasis is on pure entertainment.

In Ireland for some reason we only recently paid much attention to January 1, Christmas was our New Year or, maybe, Easter.

Kim Yong-Hae in Seoul says she can find no memory of a Korean ‘Womens’ New Year’ and reminded me that the New Year was an agricultural ‘slow period’ anyhow.

The photos show what is offered to the ancestors in Korea on New Year’s morning and public greetings in Guangzhou (thanks, Garreth).

Women and Festivals

Nollaig na mBan has come back into vogue. It was celebrated recently on 6 January, the day known as  Little Christmas, or The Three Kings because of the Three Wise Men from the East who sought out the infant Jesus in Bethlehem.  Nollaig na mBan seems to have had a stronger tradition in the south than in the rest of Ireland. It was the designated day for women who had worked non-stop during the Christmas and new Year festivities to rest and have their own celebration.

I remember there was something similar in Korea after the week-long Lunar New Year festival. However I could not find any mention of it on the internet – maybe someone out there remembers it?  I have been assured there was no such custom in China before, during or after the  Chinese New Year.  Maybe this indicates that Korean women are more influential than their Chinese counterparts.

The lunar (East Asian) New Year is late this year (mid-February) but during the recent festivities I have being thinking about it and the colourful symbolism that goes with it, promoting cheerfulness and celebration. More on those symbols later. For the present, my symbol of New Year promise is the daffodils that are growing in our front garden since mid-December. Even the recent heavy frost has not been able to restrain them. They are a tribute to all the hardworking women (and men) who cope with daily challenges and disappointments to keep popping to bring a moment of delight and optimism to a world still in the gloom of dark early evenings and late mornings.

Street Vending in China

Street vending in China’s cities is territorial. You meet the same people in the same spots in the same districts, not always downtown. Every vendor has a nose for crowds. Some sell specialty items, like handicrafts or wire bicycle models.


I have always regarded footpath vendors as hardy, calculating and agile people who lend extra colour to well-frequented shopping areas. The window displays of shops, restaurants and opticians are professional. So too are the outdoor stall displays of fruit and vegetable sellers, fish vendors and purveyors of potted plants – they are colourful, pricemarked and, yes, aesthetic, but in an institutional way. The footpath ‘casual traders’ compete with institutional capitalists using less money and more ingenuity.


I have seen China police officers sweeping a cluster of pavement traders away on certain occasions, probably under orders ‘from above’. It might be during the run-up to a holiday period. It might be a symbolical assertion of police vigilance against the street sale of electronic goods which have, let us say, fallen off the back of a lorry – the popular electrical stores with their high overheads don’t welcome that kind of competition. In a busy street near the main Bayi Square of downtown Nanchang I saw sudden alertness and movement by half a dozen pavement vendors of phones, radios, computer tablets and acessories. A pair of uniformed police further up the street had been spotted questioning somebody about his displayed goods and lack of official permit. Near my vantage point individuals quickly wrapped their wares in cloth bundles and skedaddled. On the following weekend, in dry weather, the pavement vendors were back at their usual pitches, no police to be seen.


Along an unpaved side street near the north entrance to my Changchun university there used to be a dozen or more casual traders. From daybreak, vegetables, fruit, and fish brought in from the countryside were displayed on barrows, car boots, makeshift sheltered stalls, and on the ground. This morning market was authorised by the city council while a nearby shopping mall with residential apartments was under construction.


Knicknacks, children’s toys and second-hand clothing vendors had their pitches too. Before Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) sellers of decorations and fireworks were prominently busy. A bloke playing a chanting sequence on a battery-powered amplifier displayed a ‘fortune chart’ and sold Buddhist ‘good luck’ charms and pictures. Older people stopped and bought, while younger people passed by in agnostic disdain. I once picked up for twenty yuan a second-hand leather briefcase and carried in it books, lesson notes and CD audio material for English classes around the campus. I brought it back to Ireland as carry-on luggage, and nowadays bring my research files to local heritage committee meetings. I bought winter gloves and pullovers too. Sometimes I bought household things like bowls and peeling knives. With regularity I bought fish, fruit and vegetables knowing that they were fresh. Such intimate commerce helped me to relate to the local community. I think stallholders liked to see the occasional foreigner around their suburban area.


During the Spring Festival some city streets are designated as pedestrian by city councils and vendors of fruit baskets, potted chrysanthemums, greetings cards and handcrafts are granted permits to sell from standardised stalls along the street centres. Bunting and temporary festive displays are carefully set up. Police patrol the bustling streets every day.


In Beijing is a designated street space in the antique shop district where antiques and pseudo-antiques of varying price and taste are set out on the ground every weekend.  It was near my hotel and I browsed without buying, but took a photograph I cherish.



China’s Christmas a Contrast

Christmas is important for Christians in China and the interest has spread into the wider public, causing the government to clamp down on Christmas celebrations in public and any involvement of officials for fear the country becomes too Western.

However, the celebrations of Christmas by Chinese Catholics is different from the West. They have not custom of exchanging gifts, emphasising Santa or having special dishes that are the equivalent of turkey and plum pudding though the meal they share together will be more elaborate than usual.  The celebration is a communal festival with families going to the church three or more time not only for the traditional Mass but also for plays, singing and dancing.

Fire-works are detonated and plays performed publicly, often with an informal parade of nativity scenes through villages and towns on the back of trucks. It is an opportunity to bring the Christmas message to the wider public.

It is interesting that in the West Christmas has become mainly a family occasion and efforts to share the message of Christmas with non-Christians are not evident.

A Happy Christmas to all our friends everywhere and looking forward to hearing from you in the New Year!    Hugh.

Carols and Migrants

Maynooth University held its annual Carol Service last week. Three choirs sang the old favourites, as well some not so familiar, for an attendance of over 400 in the College Chapel.

The President of Maynooth College spoke, however, about the 17 or so million who where forced out of their homes in different parts of the world this year and are today’s migrants.

He recalled that the first Christmas was about a migrant family and welcoming the stranger.

He did not mention those homeless in Beijing because the government decided recently to move out those with very low incomes to make the city safer. However, in the year that commemorates the 100th year of the Maynooth Mission to China, they could not be forgotten.

More civil in crowded China?

AITECE teacher Garreth Byrne says:

Anybody who travels around cities in China quickly experiences overcrowded the buses and trains. The shopping streets and popular markets are always bustling, especially at weekends. If you bump into somebody you learn to say ‘Dubuchi’ the word for sorry, which also means ‘excuse me’ whenever you want to ask a stranger for directions. A Chinese street or railway station escalator is the wrong place to linger as you talk fixedly into a mobile phone – but it happens all the time and people bump into each other and automatically blurt out ‘Dubuchi’.

Civility is so important when you board a city bus and deposit the standard one or two-yuan fare into a box beside the driver’s seat before proceeding along the aisle in search of a seat. On busy routes at peak times it is often impossible to find a seat. You have to shuffle along and hope that several passengers will get out through the middle or rear doors at intermediate stops. You hang onto an overhead strap bracing yourself for sudden stops at junctions, keeping your eyes peeled for passengers getting ready to vacate their seats.

Sometimes passengers of student age on an overcrowded bus have seen me shuffle slowly along the crowded aisle and have risen from their seats, beckoning me to sit down as they motioned to grip a hanging strap. They were eager to defer to a ‘laoshe’ or teacher and a foreign teacher in particular. If my intended trip was only for three or four stages and I didn’t feel stress, I often smiled and said ‘sheshe meio’ meaning that I was ok standing and they could sit it out. Ah, but there were the tired late afternoons, in hot weather or in sub-zero winter, when I accepted such kind offers, at the beginning of rattly trips that wound their way through thick traffic along straight and winding streets until they reached the university terminal half an hour later. In such cases I always hoped that the polite young person would find another empty seat after a couple of stage stops.

I never accepted the offer of a seat from a working man, an elderly person or a middle-aged woman who might be a busy mother. Their health took precedent over my weiguoren (foreigner) passing discomfort. If a mother with child came towards me on an overcrowded vehicle my natural instinct was to rise and let them sit. We in Ireland don’t seem to experience such situations because city bus drivers monitor the seating capacity and tell surplus passengers to wait until the next bus. In China, bus company policy is to pack them in tightly and make more money.

There is much civility on crowded city buses in China, but there are lurking pickpockets too. Other passengers have told me to beware, and I have secured my cash and credit cards safely away from prying hands. Be securely civil.

It’s good to get a bus seat in cold weather. This bus leaving a university terminal in Changchun will wind slowly downtown through freezing slush.





Teaching in China is the best thing ever!

One of our teachers recently told me,

‘One class wants us to finish in one semester what normally requires two!
‘I’ve just come out from one of those classes and I feel on top of the world. My students are wonderful, amazing, a pure joy to work with!! When I went in this morning the room was cold and bleak (the temperature has dropped here) but I got a big smile from the students. They are so lovely! I usually have to give them mountains of homework but they never complain. So, there’s no question of “overdoing” it, I feel energized by the students and over the moon. Teaching in China is the best thing ever!’

Teaching in China sometimes means representing your country at local cultural events. Another teacher found himself in this position recently. Sometimes there is confusion between Ireland and Iceland, and a need to explain that Ireland is not part of England, but most young people are interested in the country because of its famous literary figures.

If you are interested in teaching in China, or know someone who might be, see