Saturday, May 18, 2019

Beijing Hutongs (Old streets and alleys)

Strolling down the hutong in Beijing brought me back to my time thirty years ago. Tree-lined hutongs lead into alleys with courtyard gardens that have been there for centuries.
To know a fish, go to the water. To know a bird's song, go to the mountains. --Chinese proverb

One of the wonders of the world for many centuries has been the Great Wall, which stretches about 5,500 miles or 8,851 kilometers across China. It was built during the Ming dynasty and took about 200 years to build. Of course, the Great Wall is stupendous, but there are other walls that are a must-see if you go to Beijing: they are the walls of the hutongs. What are hutongs? They are alleys and narrow streets that connect traditional courtyard residences to one another. Within those walls or courtyards, communities and families lived for centuries. You can go down one street and turn into an ally where there are sometimes six or seven doors going into different residences. Going to the hutong area of Beijing is peeking into what urban Chinese life was like for centuries. People lived close together, working, eating, cooking, gossiping, and sharing their lives together. Today is the same.

Recently I was able to return to Beijing, a place I lived in 1989 for about six months. I briefly went back in 2009, but Beijing is always transforming and reinventing itself--with new crevices to explore. The Winter Olympics will come in 2022, and the city is vibrant with constant new construction of high-rise buildings, shopping malls, and businesses. Yet, one aspect of Beijing life has fortunately remained: the hutong neighborhoods. I wish that many of them had not been demolished in favor of modern high rises. But luckily, there are still some left. To me, they are the heart of Beijing--where you can feel the pulse of what a neighborhood feels like and eat all kinds of Chinese street food. You can even go on a hutong tour.

In 1989 riding my bike in the hutongs.
I was surprised once you turn into an ally, you could be in 1989 or even 1889. The May peonies and roses were in full bloom, and you could peek into walled gardens through a Chinese gate or door. Sometimes the area of the hutong has been called the same name for centuries and the family has inhabited it for generations. They have names like "Sheep Market" or "Willow Tree Well" or attributes like "Happy." Sometimes they are named after an emperor's barber or another such name. More than anything, the Beijing hutongs remind you why it is critical to preserve the past in a large, pulsating city. Every city needs a place to return to in their memories.

Here are ten hutong neighborhoods for you to explore in Beijing:

 Nanluoguxiang (South Gong and Drum Lane)
 Skewed Tobacco Pouch Street (Yandai Xiejie)
 Mao'er Hutong 
 Guozijian Street
 Liulichang Cultural Street 
 Jinyu Hutong 
 Dongjiamin Lane 
 Xijiamin Lane
 Ju'er Hutong 
    Badna Hutong 

Thanks, Beijing for taking me back to my own memory bank. When I lived there in 1989, riding around the hutongs on my bike was my favorite thing to do. There was and is always some new street food to try or another glimpse into Chinese life. You might say many of the Chinese walls come down in the hutongs.

Entrance to the Nanluoguxiang hutong, probably the most famous one. It is now a place where there are about 150 stores, shops, and restaurants.

An old garden and residence turned into a restaurant

Walking down the narrow alleys, with the doors going into old courtyards. The hutongs show a close neighborhood where various families have lived in close proximity for centuries.

Peeking into one of the doors that opens into a residence and courtyard. Some of the larger courtyards have been sectioned and divided so that more people can live there.

Another ally to get lost in the hutongs

There is always a leader of the hutong alley--taking care of neighborhood disagreements and problems. Their picture is shown on each ally.

A hutong neighborhood market

An old bike that carries loads on it. I remember my little family in 1989 riding on the back of one of these transport bikes.

2019 hutong

                            Street food and shops in the hutong

A bautze shop, a large dumpling with meat or beans inside. They are very cheap and are traditional northern Chinese food.

So you want a new umbrella?

Cold air keeping the fruit fresh to sell

Eating on the street in the hutongs. Everyone is trying some kind of noodle, dumpling, or rice. There are relatively few desserts because Chinese people are not traditionally as fond of sweets, like Westerners. 

Having said that, here is a candy shop.

Fans for sale...

Combs for sale...

A street vendor selling fried rice on the street in front of the shops.

A Prague and Eastern Europe dessert sold in one shop. It shows how much times have changed since I was here in 1989.
Pictures on the entrance to the hutong of the traditional hutong

Pictures of the courtyards that have now been mostly subdivided into stores, shops, and residences.

                   Pictures from 1989 when we were here in the hutongs (You can see the hutongs brought back many wonderful memories when I was here a few days ago)

Joseph and his father taking a pedicab in the hutongs in 1989

Joseph's father, Smith Shumway, with some new Chinese friends.

Hutong shopping in 1989

Going on an excursion in the hutongs with Smith and Sarah Shumway, Joseph, and our little girls who turned one and two in China.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Qatar: Teaching Children about Ramadan

Some of Abeer's children learning about the importance of prayer. There is a cup with the word "prayer" that is on the bottom of the stack of cups. The children stack the cups, telling a good deed or service they could do to help at Ramadan. And then they get to pull out the "prayer" cup, showing that without prayer, all the service and charity means nothing.
It is the holy month of Ramadan here in the Middle East where about 1.8 billion people around the world commemorate the month when Muhammed started to write the Quran. It is a time of spiritual reflection, trying to improve and show increased devotion with fasting, prayers, and acts of charity. It is a time to forgive and speak well of all--to try and bring the spiritual in harmony with the inner and outer parts of us. These are not easy principles to teach to young children. Yet, there are ways, and it has been inspiring to watch my friends try to do it.  Blog last year on A non-Muslim's perspective on Ramadan

One of the best things about my experience of being an expat in Qatar has been to live next door to my wonderful neighbors from Jordan and Palestine. Like me, Abeer, from Jordan, is a mother of six children who is trained as an engineer. Her husband is from NYC, but originally from Palestine. Although she is twenty years younger, we have been very close to one another since I moved in. Her children have been like my nieces and nephews. My husband has pulled out stitches in her kids' heads, and they ask for him when they need a tooth pulled. But there are other reasons for our closeness: We respect and support one another's faith. I have watched in a very up close way how she raises her children and teaches them about Islam. We give one another advice, and we have cried on one another's shoulders through births, deaths, sicknesses, getting my driver's license (yes, I cried when I got it because not everyone passes), and now that I will soon no longer be her next door neighbor.

Perhaps my favorite part of Abeer is her steadfast and immovable nature that is demonstrated in her faith. However, she does not keep it to herself. She loves widely with no bounds. Whenever there is a woman who has a baby in the compound, she is there.Her love is real. She wants her children to know and experience Islam here in Qatar, and not only her children, but so many others. She organizes Quran classes (even for preschoolers), and encourages her children to memorize the Quran. I am moved to tears when I hear them recite. Her daughter, at age 15, memorized the entire Quran.

My daughter and neighbor on her way to her Quran class

She does this every day, all year long, but it is during Ramadan that the fire glows even brighter as I speak to her about teaching her children about Islam. Parents try to make the Ramadan month special for children with memorable moments that are soul-filled and joyous. They teach about fasting, cleansing (wudu), prayers (saleh), and giving to the poor (zakat). It is interesting to me that prayer is taught as a physical, mental, and spiritual act of worship. All around Doha this month, I see children with excited faces, trying to internalize what they are being taught by their parents. I feel blessed and lucky to observe Ramadan so close up here. Abeer knows how to infuse both enthusiasm and faith in her children. I love to watch it.


                                  The neighborhood pre-Ramadan party

Some of the neighborhood children who are showing off their certificate from the pre-Ramadan party where they have been well taught. Most children do not fast for 30 days until puberty, but they can try to do what they can, perhaps a few meals to remember the poor. At the end of the party, I could hear all the children screaming "Ramadan" as loud as they could without taking a breath. This went on indefinitely in our compound, but I could see their faces were filled with excitement for Ramadan. 

A certificate to show they have learned about Ramadan. 

This is a prayer poster the children where the children can keep track of their five saleh every day--putting a sticker on it every time. My friend told me last year her teenage daughter made a poster of the Ramadan moon with Oreos, showing a tiny crescent Oreo moon cut up in the 30-day phase of the moon until they got the full oreo or moon. Way to make the moon image memorable for kids!

It gets the kids excited for the month when they decorate with lights, posters, and balloons at home. 

Remembering the light

The holy month of Ramadan starts in the ninth month when the crescent moon comes out. Hence, you can see moons and stars everywhere. We are here at the Mall of Qatar where there are Ramadan decorations everywhere.

Decorated houses are all over Qatar--remembering the light.

A house in my compound last night as they prepare for Iftar or breaking their fast. 

Children making lanterns of light for Ramadan. The lanterns are an idea from Egypt when the people greeted their caliph with lanterns.

Since I teach children with disabilities art, we made these Ramadan banners to decorate their homes. 

A poster celebrating the excitement children have here for Ramadan.
Giving Zakat or remembering to do good deeds and give charity--especially to the poor. 

 My neighbors giving Zakat or service or good deeds to me. They try to do it all year long, but it counts for more blessings at Ramadan. Parents sit down with their children and decide what Zakat they would contribute to--where do they want to give their money and what people they want to rememver. 

A young girl making a bag to put candies and nuts in it to give to others. Notice her beautiful dress. Children receive new clothes as they go to visit their family and friends--especially at Eid, the week after the month of Ramadan and fasting.

I love this picture of a Qatari young man helping my son with his scarf at the airport. He noticed Elias didn't have his scarf on exactly right so took the time to help him.

Now looking sharp! 

Last year we expats gave dinners and water to workers here in Qatar as they broke their fast. Elias, my son with autism, was reminded of that day as we spoke about our Muslim friends who are celebrating Ramadan this month. It was very special to give water to people who are so devotedly trying to fast and become closer to God in this month with prayers and fasting. To see their sweat pouring in the hot Qatar sun was very humbling for me.

The workers with their water after they have prayed and are waiting for their meal to be served to the workers.
                        Ways to support your Muslim friends:
                  1) Visit family and friends
                  2) Eat after sunset
                  3) Give to charity