by Luna

by Luna

Luna

Luna

Blog Intro

Hello, I'm Luna, and I'd like to welcome you to "Kisses from Kairo,"* my blog about living and working as an American belly dancer in Cairo.

Life in Cairo isn't easy for dancers, foreigners, women, or even Egyptians. It is, however, always exciting. That’s why after living here for seven years, I've decided to share my experiences with the world. From being contracted at the Semiramis Hotel to almost being deported, not a day has gone by without something odd or magical happening. I will therefore fill these pages with bits of my history in Cairo—my experiences, successes, mistakes, and observations. Admittedly, my time here has been rather unique, so I want to stress that while everything I write is true, my experiences do not necessarily reflect the lives of other dancers.

In addition to my life as a belly dancer, I will write about developments in costuming, performances, festivals, and, of course, the dance itself. I will also make frequent references to Egyptian culture. I should note that I have a love/hate relationship with Egypt. If I make any criticisms about the country, please keep in mind that I do so with the utmost love, respect, and most of all, honesty. Egypt has become my home, so I want to avoid romanticizing and apologizing for social maladies, as most foreigners tend to do. Nothing could be more misguided, patronizing, or insulting.

I hope you find this blog informative, insightful and entertaining, and that we can make this as interactive as possible. That means I'd love to hear from you. Send me your comments, questions, complaints, suggestions, pics, doctoral dissertations, money, etc., and I will get back to you. Promise. :)~



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Friday, June 15, 2018

Thoughts on China




These are some of my reflections on China, or rather, Beijing, after spending 10 days there. I present this not as THE truth, but as MY truth, according to what I saw and heard there. My truth is subject to change upon further enlightenment.


1. The air quality wasn't nearly as bad as I thought it would be. Then again, I may not be the best person to be talking about this, considering I lived in Cairo for ten years and rarely got sick. Apparently I thrive in toxic environments, so...

2. It's obvious that whatever western colonialism happened there had minimal impact on the country. Language, culture, and behavior are mostly uninfluenced by westernisms. English is not very widespread. Those who speak it are mainly younger and a bit difficult to understand. Those who don't are not even familiar with basics like yes, no, toilet, hotel, and other English words that have become internationalisms. Not even names for basic technology. Chinese has a word for everything. This makes it difficult for non-Chinese speaking tourists to navigate, but it's also beautifully refreshing to see an ancient culture very much in tact, even if you come across an occasional McDonald's, Pizza Hut, or KFC. Besides, considering China's numbers and economic status, shouldn't we be learning Mandarin instead of them learning English?


3. The technology is fascinating. I'm especially intrigued by WeChat. WeChat is THE Chinese social media platform. It's everything Facebook is and more. Each account comes with a scanable barcode, so if you're physically standing or sitting next to someone, you can add them to your WeChat by placing your cell phones face to face so that they can scan each other. (You can add people by
Girl ordering food at McDonald's.
plugging in their phone number or email address too.) In addition to helping you socialize, WeChat also acts like a debit (and possibly credit?) card. You link your Chinese bank account or ATM or credit card to your WeChat wallet and you can pay for anything and everything with it. Restaurant bills, hotel bills, merchandise... you can rent city bikes with it. You just hold up your phone to the barcode on whatever it is you're buying or renting. You can even give people money by specifying the desired amount and holding your phone up to the other's phone. Few people carry cash, and some businesses/taxis outright refuse to deal in it. This is probably a good thing considering China's problem with counterfeit bills... which explains why every taxi driver I gave money to meticulously inspected every bill that came out of my hand.

One thing I wanted to know was whether the Chinese resent their government banning Facebook and everything Google. I didn't exactly go around asking people this, partially due to the language barrier, and partially to my fear of saying anything that could potentially be construed as criticism of the Chinese government. However from my limited interactions with people, I got the impression that they believe WeChat to be superior to anything we have. More to the point, the average Chinese person has no need to connect with the non-Chinese world, so WeChat serves them just fine. Just as Facebook serves my needs. I actually used WeChat to keep in touch with my parents while I was in China (I made each of them download it), so I can attest to its genius. But I don't need it, because my life at this point does not include the Chinese speaking world in a way that is essential to my social and economic well being.

4. Chinese women don't have cellulite. Life is not fair.

5. Beijing is a glamorous city. New York, Paris, and Tokyo pale in comparison. It's also a vertical city. The number of sky scrapers seems endless. They are all made of glass--green glass, blue, black, gold, clear, that makes them shimmer under the daylight sun as well as the night lights. As if that weren't enough, each of the buildings features a unique design. One gets the sense that Beijing's architects intentionally modeled the city after a Tetris game. Square blocks are haphazardly stacked on top of towering rectangular pillars. Sometimes only half of these blocks are laying on their respective towers, the other halves suspended in midair. The sheer diversity of geometric designs, each more impressive than the next, is mind boggling. No other city that I've seen goes to such extreme cosmetic lengths. One has to wonder if the idea is to distract people from what's on the ground. Though to be honest, the bottom of the city isn't at all bad. The streets are clean, the traffic is organized, the sidewalks are crammed with trees and colorful flowers. Most of all, the city is
surprisingly quiet. (Perhaps it's only surprising for me because my reference for comparison is Cairo, one of the loudest, filthiest cities in the world.) It's more likely that the Chinese are showing off with all their glitzy buildings. Flexing their economic muscle, so to speak. Proving to the world (and to the US in particular) that they are bigger and better :)

For a government that is reportedly corrupt, it's pretty efficient... unlike in places with comparable corruption like Egypt where the government does NOTHING for the people.  Proof of this can be seen in several things: the presence of law and order, enforcement of traffic laws, seat belts, public sanitation, the use of technology to facilitate peoples' lives, and the subway, which is immaculate, efficient, and encased in a transparent tube to people from falling into the tracks. We don't even have that in the US! Even the Great Wall had protective ropes and warning signs all over it. Not all third world countries bother with such 'frivolities.'

The Beijing subway system.

6. My tour guide. His name was Murphy, and he had a lot to say. On the three hour bus ride to the Great Wall at Balading, he gave us a crash course in Chinese history. The first thing he said was that China is a misnomer, or rather a 'nickname' that the English-speaking world gave his country. China calls itself 'Middle Kingdom.' Not in English obviously. Imagine that-- not being able to get others to call you by your real name. It seems like the ultimate form of disrespect. This is also the case with masr, which the western world calls Egypt, or some variation of that. (To be fair, Egypt could have at one point very long ago referred to itself as something that sounds like Egypt, coming from the word gibti, or qipti, the name of its indigenous inhabitants known today as Copts. However the country no longer calls itself that, so maybe we shouldn't either?) But I digress. So, what's so middle about this
Temple of Heaven
kingdom better known as China? Murphy went on to explain that the ancient Chinese, like many ancient peoples, believed their civilization to be at the center of the universe. (They also believed that the earth was flat and that heaven was round, hence the reason the Temple of Heaven built by the Qing Dynasty some 600 years ago is basically a round tower.) If I understood Murphy correctly (his English was indecipherable at times) Middle Kingdom became China when British merchants started calling it that after the porcelain they were importing from the Chinese via the Silk Road. Murphy said the English word for porcelain at the time was China. Or maybe it was silk the English were buying and calling China. I’m not sure what he said exactly, or that all of his information was correct. I remember reading other theories on how China came to be called China, and they had nothing to do with the British, so…

The next thing Murphy was quick to point out was the difference between ‘true’ Chinese people, on the one hand, and minorities, on the other. The former are called the Han, and the latter are numerous, diverse, and foreign. The Han are lighter-skinned, valiant and compassionate. The minorities have darker complexions, different features, and have given China a bad reputation for eating dogs, spiders, crickets, and other forms of life deemed inedible from a western perspective. The Han people do not eat dogs or disgusting things that crawl. This is China according to Murphy.

I’m not sure I completely buy it. Not that I know anything about Chinese ethnography, but it is possible that China has issues with race and identity politics, just like the US, but that unlike the US, there isn’t as great an awareness about it. The other thing is that, well, what’s so bad about eating dogs anyway? Assuming you don’t believe that eating flesh is a mortal sin, and assuming the dogs are killed humanely (or at least as (in)humanely as other food animals), then why is it OK to eat a cow and not a dog? Why a pig but not a cat? I realize that dogs and cats are companion animals, but that’s really only the case in the west. In other parts of the world, they’re treated as either vermin or food.. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting we all start eating our pets. As a lifelong dog lover, I find the practice gut wrenching and cruel. But that’s because I was raised in a culture that taught me that dogs should be treated like humans, and sometimes even better. I wasn’t born into a civilization with deep roots in deprivation that didn’t have the luxury of making friends with certain species while deeming others disgusting. So eating habits, much like morality, are culturally relative. Indians think we’re crazy for eating cows, we think they’re crazy for worshiping them. Jews and Muslims don’t eat pig, the Chinese eat everything. What’s the problem?

7. The contrast between the older and newer generations is striking. The older generation seems to have little to no use for technology. Their time is better spent flying kites over the rivers, playing cards and Chinese checkers, and practicing Tai Chi in parks. Many of them are in excellent physical shape. The men can be seen shirtless hanging off all types of monkey bars by their feet, swinging themselves up and down in order to keep their core solid. Both men and women stand for long periods of time holding either foot up to their heads, or they sit on the ground in various stretching positions. I didn't see many young people tuning their bodies like this... or playing cards or checkers or flying kites. That doesn't mean it doesn't happen, but I did get the impression that young people are more wrapped up in their phones.... and jobs and lives. As they are everywhere.


People exercising on the Temple of Heaven premises.






Szechuan fish
8. I liked the food much more than I anticipated. Thank God because before getting on the plane, I was mentally preparing myself to spend the next ten days in McDonald's, KFC, and Pizza Hut. Real Chinese food is heavy on the vegetables, meat (every kind imaginable (I was offered donkey meat and horse milk wine)), spices, and contrasting flavors. I spent ten days marveling at the combination of such random ingredients. But it works. Some of my favorites were banana chunks covered in fried garlic flakes, Peking duck, and grilled Szechuan fish. This fish comes buried under a quilt of chopped celery, black mushrooms, peanuts, kelp, tofu and tofu tape (this is what I'm calling the long, thickish flat bands of tofu that you can find in almost any Chinese dish). And I loooved hot pot.

So. Hot pot. This is a very popular thing in China (at least in Beijing), and there are special restaurants for it. These restaurants are laid out like bars. You sit with your friends at the bar, and in front of each person on the counter is a hole that's big enough for a personal size pot. The server puts a pot full of spicey water in the hole, which is actually a stove. The controls are built in to the bar next to each stove/hole so you can control how much you want the water to boil. Then the server brings you a large tray of raw beef pastrami slices. They are so raw they're bright red, and if you're an occasional, unenthusiastic, circumstantial carnivore such as myself, it can be a little off-putting. However, the platter of raw veggies and tofu that follows takes the edge off of that pain. What happens next is that all the raw food goes for a dip in that bubbling cauldron. You put it in there with your chop sticks. But not all at once, and not before opening the plastic packets of sesame and spicy ginger
Raw beef pastrami.
sauce (I think?) and mixing them into a small bowl of chopped parsley. Once you do that, you begin cooking your food in the pot. The pastrami goes first. As soon as it hits the water, its bright red color fades into a deep brown. Done in no time. Then you add the Chinese lettuce, spinach, bok choy, tofu, tofu tape, those black mushrooms that look like floppy umbrellas when cooked, and the long skinny white mushroom clusters that take minutes to chew because they become gummy when boiled. There's also shrimp egg paste and sea cucumber-- fish always seems to make an appearance in meals in some shape or form. Once the contents are cooked, you pull them out with your sticks and drown them in the bowl of sesame paste, spicy ginger sauce, and parsley snippings. 
This mix is not for food cowards, but it is surprisingly delicious. It does need a liter of chilled Chinese beer next to it, though. Between the boiling water and the spices, your mouth will go on fire. When I was eating, my eyes were tearing, my nose was dripping, AND I was hiccuping hysterically--my body's rather strange reaction to spicy food. I'm sure the Chinese people in the restaurant found me entertaining, especially when I would put my head under the bar to blow my nose as discreetly as possible. 😂 Because you know, blowing one's nose at the table is bad manners. Even in China, where it's perfectly acceptable to burp, fart, and even spit in public. Yes, spit. As in hock a loogi. A phlegm-filled, turbo-powered loogi sucked straight up from the loins, delivered promptly and precisely to a floor near you. Any floor. A  bank floor, a restaurant floor, a hotel floor. One night I found myself in the lobby of a fancy hotel with some
Peking Duck
Egyptian friends. There was a group of well-dressed Chinese men waiting for the elevator. As soon as the elevator arrived, I heard a sound that could only be compared to the noise an espresso machine makes when in operation. Yeah, you know that sound. In this case, it was the sound of one of the men collecting a gigantic spit wad from every inch of his body and preparing it in his mouth for torpedo-speed delivery to the floor. In front of the elevator. In front of me! In a fancy hotel! I mean, who does that?! So, if it's OK for people to spit on the floor in a hotel, it should be fine for me to blow my runny nose at a hot pot restaurant.
👍



Speaking of bodily functions in public, I'm perfectly aware that my disdain for things like spitting, burping, farting, and picking your nose is the result of my upbringing. Where I'm from, we're taught from a very early age that these types of bodily functions should be done within the privacy of one's bathroom. I'm guessing it has to do with displaying courtesy towards others by not subjecting them to smells and sites that could potentially gross them out. Especially at the dinner table. But what do I know. This could all be the result of the evil capitalistic patriarchy trying to suppress our natural bodily functions.... for a profit or something. I mean, I don't know who's making money when I duck my head under a restaurant table to blow my nose, or when I cultivate a phlegm wad in the privacy of my own home as opposed to in front of an unsuspecting audience in a hotel lobby, but hey, somebody could be capitalizing on that manners shit we practice, cuz CAPITALISM... the universal scapegoat. Well China is Communist. I guess that means they've made a commitment to not making money off of suppressing bodily functions. That's... admirable. It just takes a little getting used to, I suppose. Or perhaps being born into. That doesn't make it wrong, but it does make it mind boggling from a western perspective. I'm really trying to be as objective about this as possible. Other than 'it's natural,' what are the benefits of burping, farting, nose picking, and spitting in public? And why draw the line there? Why not urinate and defecate in public? (Oh wait, that's been known to happen...in many countries. More on that later). Why not have sex in public? Sex is a bodily function. It's natural. 

Societies can be so arbitrary.

Ok. Let's talk about shit holes. Not shitholes, as in the offensive term for third world countries, but shit holes. Holes in the ground into which people... shit. It's very rare to come across one of these in the US, however they are still the norm in parts of the Middle East, Africa, and China. I'm not sure about Central and Eastern Europe or Latin America. Now, to be fair, shit holes, properly called squat toilets, are the original toilets. This is because humans were designed to eliminate while squatting (preferably into a hole of some sort). It has something to do with the positioning of the rectum, which makes it easier to eliminate waste without straining or wondering if and when things will happen. All in all, squatting is healthier than sitting. It has been said to prevent constipation, hemorrhoids, colon cancer, appendicitis, and inflammatory bowel disease. It protects the nerves that control the bladder, the uterus, and the prostate from becoming stretched and damaged. Squatting is also a good way to tone your thighs. That being said, squat holes can be problematic for people who are used to s(h)itting on thrones.

I remember my very first encounter with one of these things. It was in 2007 in Syria. I had gone there to study Arabic for two months at a language institute run by two Muslim converts from Spain and Burkina Faso (in retrospect, it's not unlikely that they were precursors to ISIS, laying low while the impending disaster was brewing). As part of the arrangement, all of the students were placed in homestays, including myself. That's when I discovered the Turkish toilet.  Il-hamam il-baladi. The squat pot. The shit pit. In place of where I assumed the royal throne would be. I was twenty four and very American, and even though I had experience traveling the third world, I had never seen a poop hole in the ground. In fact I had never even heard of such a thing. You could imagine the extent of my shock when I first laid eyes upon this...thing.

Operation shit pit wasn't going well. Especially when I got, gasp, really bad food poisoning and both ends of my digestive track were simultaneously exploding. After a week of duking it out with the bathroom, I surrendered and asked Abu Bakr, the program administrator from Burkina Faso, to place me in another home with a 'normal' toilet bowl (I had heard from the other students that some families did indeed have them). I also wanted to be rehomed because the family I was staying with had a bit of a domestic violence problem. The husband would hurl cooking pots at his wife and then ask me to determine who was at fault for whatever the day's conflict was, all the while telling his wife how much prettier he thought I was. Basically, I got the shit end of both sticks, pun intended. But when I expressed my concerns to Abu Bakr, he laughed and told me not to be a spoiled American. Indeed. That was my first lesson in the classification of problems into first world and third world.

Syria was a traumatizing experience for a couple of other reasons. Landing in a rural hospital on account of even more food poisoning; narrowly escaping knifepoint robbery by Iraqi refugees; and getting an unwelcome surprise visit from a mental Egyptian ex who was trying to win me back after cheating, but the squat pot took the cake. I had to deal with that shit several times a day! You might be wondering what the big deal is. If you can squat, and you can shit, then you should be able to do both at the same time. That works in theory, but it's easier said than done. For me, the problem was psychological. Something felt terribly wrong about lowering my arse to just a couple of inches above this pit that contains shit plus God knows what else. I mean, in a lot of cases you can actually look down and see everything, but your imagination can still get the better of you. What's lurking down there? Maybe a bunch of hungry pigs? Will they come up and bite me? Pull me in? 

So the pigs in shit pits aren't a figment of my imagination. I actually read that this was a thing (perhaps still is?) in parts of rural China. Now, I wasn't researching China's toilet situation. I was actually browsing Google for some tips on what to do/avoid/expect from a first time visit to China. For starters, I was more interested in whether the tap water was drinkable (it's not). But Google decided I needed to know about Chinese toilet culture. The first thing I read was that China still uses squat pots. That was my first cause for concern. Then I read that the public toilets are only drained once a week by the ministry of, oh, I don't remember, toilet suckers or something, which basically sends teams of workers with gigantic vacuums to suck the waste out of the pits. That was my second cause for concern. Especially the part about being able to smell these toilets meters away on account of all the waste that accumulates before it gets sucked out at the end of the week. As I continued to educate myself, I learned that the public shit holes are not always cordoned off by stalls. Meaning, they can be just a bunch of adjacent holes on the ground, and everyone takes their positions before taking a big communal shit. Against my better judgement, I decided to keep reading-- about the maggots, about the hungry pigs lurking under the pits, voraciously waiting for the next deposit.

Apparently people used pigs in the absence of plumbing and cesspools (I didn't even know pigs eat excrement, sheltered city girl that I am, but that begs the question of what happened to all the pig shit. When and how did that get cleaned out? Or didn't it? Were the pigs left to swim in their own mess?) The author of the piece I was reading swore that those pigs were only used for plumbing purposes, and that they never made their way onto anyone's plate. I don't know though. What's the purpose of feeding pigs if you're not going to eat them?

At this point in my research, I seriously considered cancelling my trip to China. I had culture shock and I wasn't even there yet! Healthy or not, there was no way I was going to squat, and I was quite happy admitting that this was my particular first world problem. Still, I really wanted to see China, and there were people eagerly awaiting my workshops. What was I supposed to do? Tell them sorry, I'm not coming because I can't shit in a pit?

Before making any decisions, I decided to ask some friends who had been to China. It was true. Traditional toilets were still the norm, but they said I could find western toilets in the five star hotels. That put me at ease somewhat. Even though I wouldn't be staying in a five star hotel, I figured I could walk into one whenever I had to go. But that would quickly become inconvenient, especially in the event of food poisoning. So I came up with a better plan. I would buy a portable potty and take it with me to China. This way I could prop it up whenever, wherever, and not have to worry about locating the nearest throne. I found a lot of different models online, most of them under sixty dollars. And I was just about to buy one, but...

...A few more last minute consultations with actual Chinese nationals made me decide against it. They assured me that I wouldn't need it, that most nicer establishments in Beijing had western toilets, and that even the squat pots in the streets had gotten a makeover as a result of China hosting the Olympics in 2008. I wasn't completely convinced, but I decided to risk it. I flew to China sans toilet. Upon arriving I was happy to discover that just as they described, the toilets in the hotels were thrones. What more, the public toilets were pleasantly sanitary. Not that I wanted or needed to experiment with them. Not even when I was out from dawn to dusk sightseeing. One thing about me is that I'm good like that. When nature calls, I don't always answer. Sometimes I play hard to get. 😁

I know, I know. I'm coming off as a privileged, elevated-toilet-seat-loving American. But before you judge my discomfort at foreign toilet practices, allow me to point out that other cultures have similar issues when encountering toilets to which they are unaccustomed. I didn't know this, but it was brought to my attention that in some western European countries with relatively large immigrant populations, restaurants, trains, and hotels have constructed separate squat pot bathrooms in addition to their regular ones. The reason cited was that some immigrants were destroying their regular bathrooms by standing on top of the toilet seats with both feet in order to squat. Apparently they were uncomfortable sitting on them. So it's not just westerners who have difficulties adapting to the more sensitive aspects of foreign cultures.

Now, there was one thing I was unprepared for:



This was the bathroom in the first hotel I stayed in-- the one my sponsor booked. On the reservation printout that my sponsor sent me, It was called the (Apple) Four Seasons Hotel. Gullible foreigner that I was, I believed the printout. I really thought I'd be staying in the Four Seasons Hotel, and that Apple was that particular branch's nickname to distinguish it from other Four Seasons hotels around the country.  Little did I know that in the land of fake everything, even hotels could be knock offs, and that 'high copy' applies to hotels as much as to Louis Vuitton bags and Chanel sunglasses.

The (Apple) Four Seasons Hotel was no Four Seasons. As far as I was concerned, it was better. I doubt the real Four Seasons would have made me walk five minutes to get from the elevator to my room, or that it could boast a zero English-speaking staff for a cultural immersion experience as authentic as possible. The real Four Seasons wouldn't serve corn juice in the morning. But most impressively, the real Four Seasons probably does not equip their rooms with state of the art, 'theater' bathrooms featuring glass walls (!) with automated curtains that rise and fall at the push of a button. And that, my friends, is what five star is all about--providing you with options. With a state of the art see-through theater bathroom, you have the option to lower the curtains over the glass walls if you would like some privacy while taking a dump. You simply push a button inside the bathroom and the curtains roll down. Now you see it, now you don't. But here's a word of warning. The curtain takes a good twenty to thirty seconds to hit the floor, so if you want to avoid embarrassing yourself, you need to control your bowels so that they don't move before the curtain is completely unrolled. Good luck if you have diarrhea. Now obviously none of this applies if you have the room to yourself, or if you're sharing the room but have no problem using the toilet or showering in front of others. In that case, the curtain can remain rolled up. Either way, the possibilities are endless. The bathroom is your stage, and you can make your bodily functions as dramatic or comedic as you like.

All kidding aside, what these transparent bathrooms teach us is that privacy for bodily functions is not the default in China. It is the exception, albeit a growing one. In fact, I saw not only people of the same gender using the bathroom together, but men and women sharing them too. And I'm not talking about multiple stall bathrooms. I'm talking about single bathrooms, with one toilet bowl and one sink. No one was embarrassed or made to feel ashamed. It was fascinating. And it's a perfect example of how concepts of shame and privacy are socially constructed--this would seem perfectly normal to me if I were raised in China.


Here's a few more pictures of my trip to China. 

Post workshop photo with some of the lovely dancers. <3

A man flying a kite over a river.

The Panda exhibit at the Beijing Zoo! 

 He's so cute I just want to shmish him!

Incredible gigantic statue at the Beijing Zoo.

Siberian tiger at the Beijing Zoo.

Some shiny glitzy Beijing buildings.

I love this guy. He's always laughing!

The Great Wall of China at Balading.

On top of the Great Wall.

Holding up the arch at the Great Wall.


Trying not to freak out on the cable car that took us up to the Great Wall.
My sponsor and I drinking beer after hot pot.




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