The ancient art of henna

LogoThough I have nothing against them, I’ve never had any desire to have a permanent tattoo. For quite some time, however, I’ve wanted to try the ancient art of henna and I finally had the opportunity when I came across Dinkal Patel‘s booth at a recent community event.

While the use of henna is most often associated with India and Pakistan, it’s origin is difficult to pinpoint. It’s earliest use appears to date back to the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt. Cleopatra, the last reigning queen of that early civilization, is said to have used it to adorn her body and beautify herself.

In modern times, until fairly recently, intricately designed henna tattoos, or mehndi, were predominantly used as part of traditional Indian wedding celebrations. Designs symbolizing good luck, wealth and health are applied to the hands and feet of the bride the night before her wedding. It is believed that the henna will cool the body’s nerve endings and help keep her calm throughout her big day. This custom holds great cultural significance in Hinduism and the symbols that are used are considered sacred.

These days, however, henna tattoos have found their way into western culture where they act as a form of body jewelry. Though Dinkal does do bridal henna, the designs that she offered at her booth were more generic. After looking at some of the examples on display, I chose to have a floral design applied to the back of my right hand. I was astonished at how quickly she applied the henna paste. Working completely freehand, she was done in no more than ten minutes and charged only $15!

with dried paste

Dinkal told me to leave the dried paste in place for 2 to 3 hours before removing it. I left it a little longer than that until it began to crumble and fall off. When I removed the remainder, because I didn’t know how henna dye worked, I was hugely disappointed. Most of the design was indistinct and looked like I’d simply spilled something orange on my hand or as hubby said, like I’d scraped my hand on the concrete!

Immediately after removing paste

Dinkal had also told me to try to keep the design dry until the next day, so even though it didn’t look like the henna was going to amount to much, I followed her instructions. That’s a little tricky to do when it’s on your right hand, but hubby took over supper making for the day and I kept it out of water. As the evening progressed, I thought perhaps it was beginning to darken, but I chalked that up to wishful thinking or an overactive imagination. Imagine my surprise and delight when I woke up the next morning and this is what I saw!

next morning

The design continued to darken until it looked like this at the end of the following day. I was delighted!

end of day 2

Over the next week or so, had numerous comments and compliments, even from total strangers! The most frequently asked questions were where I’d had it done and how long it would last. Though I’d read that henna tattoos can last from 1 to 4 weeks, Dinkal told me to expect about a week and a half and it appears that she was correct. Here’s how it looked at the end of day 8. Gradually disappearing, but not yet unattractive.

IMG_2994

By yesterday morning, almost two weeks after the henna was applied, only the darkest bits remained. There was no design left on the back of my hand, just a smattering of brown dots. I did some research into how to remove faded henna tattoos and found several different suggestions. The most common ones involved baking soda and lemon juice. Another suggestion that sounded like it would be kinder to my skin involved using either baby oil or coconut oil. I didn’t have either of those on hand, so I decided to try olive oil which, like henna, has been used on skin since ancient times. It’s loaded with nutrients, is a natural humectant, and is rich in antioxidants. I applied it to the back of my hand, left it for 10 minutes, then gently scrubbed it off using a facecloth and hand soap. It worked like a charm! The designs at the ends of my fingers, though faded, still looked okay, so I left them for now.

Next time… and yes, I’m pretty sure there will be a next time… I’d like to try a henna tattoo on my shoulder or forearm. Since my hands are in and out of water constantly, I thinking that perhaps it would last a little longer in one of those locations.

Why is it so hard?

As I’ve seen the news about pastors, like Rev. Tony Spell in Louisiana, who are insisting on their “right” to hold Easter services in spite of the Covid-19 pandemic, I have to ask why is it so hard to obey stay-at-home orders that have been put in place to protect the lives of the vulnerable; the very people that churches profess to care about? Why is it so hard?

I fully understand people wanting to be with family and to take part in their traditional Easter celebrations. I’d love to be with my kids and grandkids too, but I’ve been pondering why we do what we do and why we think we need to. Nowhere in scripture are we commanded to gather together for Easter (other than the instruction not to give up meeting together in Hebrews 10:25 which, thankfully, we’re able to do virtually) or given any instructions about how to celebrate the resurrection. These are manmade traditions. Perhaps a quiet, at home Easter without all those extras is not a bad thing. Perhaps it’s a time for us to reflect in a more intentional way on the real meaning of the event which is not bunnies, eggs, and chocolate. It isn’t even necessarily going to church!

I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with the ways we usually celebrate Easter, but just this once, it’s okay to do things differently. In fact, we need to do things differently! As the church, we need to be obedient to the Word of God which tells us in several places to obey those in positions of authority over us. Romans 13:1 tells us, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” Regardless of what people like Rev. Spell proclaim, we are called to obey those who put the current social distancing regulations in place! Why is that so hard?

I’m reminded of the two Easters that we spent in non Christian countries. In Japan, we did attend a Christian church and celebrated Easter there, but outside the walls of the church, there was no recognition of Easter at all. In China, where we weren’t part of any Christian organization, I’ll always remember that we went out for dinner with a couple of our college students on Easter Sunday and ate roast duck and bullfrog! Not frog’s legs, the whole frog! It was delicious, but I digress! At the end of that day, I wrote this and I think it applies as well to our current situation as it did then.

“Easter isn’t really about what we eat or who we spend the day with. Whether we’re with family around a table laden with ham and all the trimmings or in a shopping mall in China eating bullfrog, as Christians, Easter is at the centre of who we are and what we believe.”

 

Dragon Boat Festival

Today was the first day of China’s three day Duanwu or Dragon Boat Festival holiday. The festival itself which falls on Wednesday, commemorates ancient China’s patriotic poet, Qu Yuan, who lived from 340 to 278 BC. Though stories vary somewhat, according to legend, Qu was accused of treason and banished from the ancient state of Chu for failing to support the king’s proposed alliance with the increasingly powerful state of Qin. During his years of exile, he wrote many enduring patriotic poems. When the state of Qin later captured the capital of Chu, Qu committed suicide by drowning himself in the Milou River. HIs death occurred on the 5th day of the 5th month of the Chinese lunar calendar which this year falls on June 12. Apparently the festival takes its name from the idea that people rowed their boats out into the river in an unsuccessful attempt to either save their beloved poet or retrieve his body.

At the beginning of the semester, when I saw the Dragon Boat Festival on our school calendar, I had visions of watching colourful boats filled with rowers racing on a local waterway. Sadly, that doesn’t happen in Dalian.

It would seem that the primary way that people here celebrate the festival is by eating zongzi, triangular packets of glutinous rice wrapped in bamboo leaves. The stores and markets have been filled with them for the past few days. It is said that this tradition originated when local people dropped sticky rice packets into the river to feed the fish and keep them from consuming Qu’s body!

We were given several homemade zongzi yesterday. Though the rice tasted okay, having taken on a mild grassy flavour from the bamboo leaves, we weren’t very impressed by its texture. For me, the word glutinous even sounds gluey and that’s exactly what it was!

A second tradition is the wearing of five-coloured silk cords around the wrists. These are being sold everywhere right now by women who have obviously been busy making them by hand. I bought mine for 1 yuan (about 17 cents) each and will wear them on Wednesday. Apparently, when the festival is over, they’re supposed to be cut off and thrown away to get rid of bad luck.

When we went down to the street market to pick up vegetables and meat this morning, we noticed lots of bundles of leaves being sold. We guessed that they too must have something to do with the festival. They didn’t look very edible and we had no idea what their purpose was until I read up on the celebration online and learned that they were mugwort leaves and calamus. Apparently, people put bundles of them over their doors to protect themselves against disease. I wonder if they have any effect on shingles? Perhaps I should have bought some! Actually, the stems and leaves of these plants are said to dispel an aroma that is thought to purify the air and discourage flies and mosquitoes so perhaps there’s something to the tradition.

Although this festival has long been part of Chinese culture, the government of the People’s Republic of China, established in 1949, refused to officially recognize it as a public holiday. It was only reinstated as a national holiday in 2008. Since it falls on a Wednesday this year, many people, including us, worked on Saturday and Sunday so that they could have today and tomorrow off and make it a three day vacation.

Since our tour of China is coming up soon, we decided not to go anywhere this holiday. Instead, we’re staying here in Dalian and being tourists in our own town but I’ll share more about that in future posts.

Football!

I went to a professional football game last night. As in much of the world, football in China is what we North Americans refer to as soccer. I’m not an avid sports fan but in years gone by Dalian’s claim to fame in China was its football team so I really wanted to see them in action. Apparently they haven’t done as well in recent years but they did manage to win last night’s match.

I went to the game with two of our fellow teachers and five of our students. Poor Richard, the real sports fan in the family, had a class to teach so he wasn’t able to join us.

Though the game itself was interesting to watch, being part of a local crowd cheering on their team was exciting. I found myself chanting along with the rest of them and when the one and only goal was scored, I was on my feet and hollering just like everyone else!

It was some of the peripherals that I found most fascinating, however. When we arrived at the stadium, well ahead of game time, the area surrounding it was a beehive of activity. Vendors had food booths and tables set up to serve the crowd and others had stacks of seat cushions to sell. The local custom is to buy a cushion and spend the game sitting on it then send it sailing through the air toward the field at the game’s end! Most of our boys bought the thin 0.5 yuan (about 8 or 9 cent) cushions but Vicky and I decided that our bony butts would prefer the plusher 1 yuan ones! Of course, after the stadium empties, the cushions are collected and resold before the next game.

As is standard at a sporting event, the national anthem was played before the game started. Though we Canadians tend to be rather apathetic when it comes to singing our anthem, I fully expected the Chinese to belt theirs out the way I’ve seen Americans do. I could hear Vicky singing quietly beside me but hers was the only voice I heard! I was quite astonished.

I was also surprised by the presence of soldiers! Though we’re surrounded by crowds of people wherever we go in China, this was the first time I’d been in a situation where a large crowd of people had assembled in one place for a specific purpose. Clearly that’s still something that the Communist government has concerns about. Why else would there be a line of soldiers around the field facing the crowd? They stood at attention until the game started and then sat unmoving on tiny stools always with their back to the action and their eyes on the crowd. They wore dress uniforms including white gloves and weren’t visibly armed but clearly no one was going to tangle with them.

I’ll probably be watching a lot more soccer over the next few years but I don’t expect there to be any soldiers present. I’m going to be watching this little guy, my oldest grandson, play! He’s even wearing Dalian colours and I thought of him when I saw #8 on the field last night.

My name is Guang

Richard and I are still somewhat uncomfortable with the fact that our students are required to use English names at school but I find the stories behind these names fascinating. Many were simply given them by their first foreign English teacher while others chose from a list of names when they first came into the school to register for classes.

Some choose a name that sounds similar to their Chinese name. Bradley’s real name is Li Borou. According to Chinese tradition, his family name comes first but reversed, it would be Borou Li which sounds a bit like Bradley. Now that he’s considering going to Canada to study, however, he’s concerned that Bradley Li (pronounced Lee) will sound odd so he has started signing his name, Brad Li.

Others are influenced by the entertainment world. Grace chose the name of a favourite character in an American television drama and was tickled to discover that I have a fondness for the name because it was also my grandmother’s.

Big Jacky, easily the tallest Chinese person I’ve ever seen, is class monitor for one of my university classes. His duties include stopping by the office when he arrives to pick up the key and unlock the classroom. He also insists on carrying my books up to the sixth floor for me every time! When I asked him how he got his English name, he explained that he’s a fan of Hong Kong actor and martial artist, Jackie Chan, who was actually born Chan Kong-sang.

Sissi (pronounced Cee Cee) was a nickname given to one of Richard’s students by her grandmother when she was just a little girl. Since it’s easy for even we foreigners to pronounce, she decided to use it instead of adopting a different English name. I think it suits her.

One of the most unusual names we’ve encountered is Dragon but his choice made perfect sense once he explained it to me. Apparently his Chinese name means little dragon.

Their English names aren’t particularly important to most our university students who are simply taking an English course because it’s a graduation requirement. When the year is over, many of them will never use the name again. When they wrote their midterm exams, I discovered that Patricia didn’t even know how to spell her English name! It’s a different story for our students who are preparing to study overseas, however. Recognizing that they will be using this name for several years, possibly the rest of their lives for those who dream of making Canada their permanent home, some of them aren’t satisfied with a name that was chosen hastily or thrust upon them by a teacher they’d only just met. Stacie is such a student. Last time I talked to her, she was considering becoming Monique!

Our school isn’t the only one that requires its students to choose an English name. Apparently this is common practice across China. When we met Michael, one of our "angels", in Jinan last week, I asked him how he got his English name and he explained that he’s a fan of both Michael Jordan and Michael Jackson.

After hearing many of these stories, I began to wonder what I would do if I had to choose a Chinese name. I’ve always been fascinated by the meaning of names so I wondered if my name, which means shining light, might have a Chinese counterpart. Over lunch one day, I asked some of our students if they knew of a Chinese girl’s name that meant light. Sure enough, Sissi told me that her mother’s name, Guang (pronounced Gwong), was the one I was looking for. Though no one actually calls me by this name, I’ve decided to adopt it as my Chinese name. I even like the look of its Chinese character. It reminds me of a burning candle or a lighthouse.

Since Chinese women take their husband’s family name when they marry, I guess I’m actually Meng Guang because Richard’s Munchkin class (his 12 year olds) recently decided that he should have a Chinese name too. They dubbed him Meng Fei, naming him after a popular TV anchorman who gained nation-wide fame as host of the popular blind date reality show "If You Are the One"!