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不同

Different

相同

The Same

women from Beijing portraits and interviews

photographed and interviewed by Miriam Leitner and Theresia Romberg-Frede
DIFFERENT THE SAME is a photography and interview project featuring women in Beijing.
In 2015 Miriam Leitner and Theresia Romberg-Frede, two German women living in the Chinese capital, began speaking to and taking pictures of women in the city – women of all ages, from very diverse backgrounds and in different circumstances.
Globalization makes the world small, but it does not necessarily bring us together, or lead to a better understanding between us. This exhibition enables us to take a closer look at unique individuals‘ stories and hopes to increase curiosity and openness in our interaction with each other.

不同 Different 相同 The Same

Wen Xia
Wen Xia 文霞 photographed with her sister Wen Jui 文慧 》

Wen Xia

  1. born in the year of the tiger
  2. from Ha‘erbin
  3. singer, actress and Miss World 2012

Our family is like a table: there are four legs: If you don‘t feel good the family can fix you, because three of the legs are still there: mother, father and my sister. This is what our mother has told us. My sister really loves me very much. She is the best gift in my life. Sometimes she says I like to be cared for, like a child. When I am with my very close family and friends, I can feel like a child. But outside I am only a woman.  I was born as the second girl to the family. My grandmother was so disappointed that she did not look after us. My father had to go to work and my mother worked in the fields. So sometimes she locked us in the kitchen. She gave us water, and put some food on the desk and we were in the room. When she came home everything was untidy. Sometimes she took us along to the field where she was working and put us into a big basin. Every time she moved she dragged us along behind her. My mom said, she was so uneasy looking after us. She was very tired.

Later on my sister and I we went to school and to university. I studied Chinese folk music. During that time I went to the Miss World contest. And yes, I like to be on the stage. For me, I did not think about winning; I just wanted to learn. I just wanted to have this experience.

Now, I go to other countries and people ask me: “Where are you from?” If I say, that I am Chinese, they answer, “Wow, you are Chinese! I want to visit your country!” I am so happy because people react in a positive way. China is so big, with so many people; I am so proud of it.

For my own children I want them to do everything they like; hobbies are important, I think. But you cannot let children be very, very free. Sometimes you have to give them advice. Like my mom said,“You have to give them direction.“
Everyone has a religion. I respect all religions. I think one thing is very important: You have to have it in your heart, then your heart is your God and your universe. If you can find it, you will be happy forever.

The two young women were very hospitable to us, while we were doing the interview in their apartment. They served tea and cookies and the older sister was taking care of us very well. We were talking until it was very late in the evening.

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Gioia
Gioia 》

Gioia

  1. born in the year of the rabbit
  2. from Hebei province
  3. self-employed

I grew up in a very, very small village. Perhaps 10,000 people live there. I lived there with my two younger brothers who are twins, my father, and my mother. I had to help my mom, because my parents would work in the fields. Life was poor but I felt fine. The only thing was, that my father lost his temper so easily. He would beat my mom, he beat me, everyone at home.

Since I was little, I watched movies and series about life in big cities. Mostly love stories. I saw the workplaces there … people wearing nice clothes in different styles. This was what I wanted. “How can I reach that”, I thought. And I knew: study, study, study. But my father would not let me go to university. It was too expensive.

Then I found an advertisement for the recruitment of young people my age. It was about getting a professional training for working in a hotel. With the acceptance there, my life, my destiny, totally changed. With my little income, I managed to have some savings and later on I went to university. Since then I never stopped learning. I am very dedicated. I got a college degree from the Beijing Foreign Studies University.

Some time ago my mother gained weight even though before she was very skinny. In earlier times she didn't always have enough food. She developed hypertension, diabetes and Alzheimer's in her early sixties. My father did not take care of her. Both of my brothers have their own families. Their lives are also hard. So I am the only one in the family, who can take care of my mother. 

Now my mother came to live with me in Beijing. I do everything by myself. I get up at 5 am, clean the apartment and cook the breakfast and wash the clothes. Since she is with me I take very good care of her and she is doing much better. My mother always gave the greatest, the most selfless love to her children. So I feel, I should give that back to her.

Gioia‘s favourite color is white. She loves furniture, clothes, sheets, she loves everything surrounding her to be light, white, clean and clear. All different from the world she grew up in, which was in the countryside in poor conditions. Her willingness and dedication to move on with her education and her job, as well as with personal growth, impressed us.

不同 Different 相同 The Same

Wendy
Wendy 蔚 》

Wendy

  1. born the year of the monkey
  2. self-employed
  3. came to Beijing as a young adult

It was in the 60s that many people went to a rural place to work in the military industry. There they built up a factory from nothing. They produced the bearings for rotors. I was born and grew up there until I was 18 years. All the people working in the factory were from the outside. The factory felt like an isolated island from the local world. The locals looked strangely at us. They called us ‘bei mian’, northern flour, because the southern people just eat rice.

I went to a vocational school, and after graduating I went to the factory to be a worker. There I worked with machines and everything. You know, some years ago I was really ashamed to talk about that part of my life, because I was a worker for about one year. But now I am really quite happy, because I got a lot of technical skill. At that time my brother went to university in Beijing and he found an opportunity for me to study in Beijing – and I just ran away.

When I had my son, he was living with my parents-in-law. At that time I was very unhappy with that. But my husband wanted our son to stay with his parents. I did not have any power for my child‘s daily life. I could not decide which clothes he should be wearing, what he should be eating … my parents-in-law were like his parents. I saw him only on the weekends. For Chinese people that is quite normal. I argued with my husband and he did not realize it was such a big problem for me. For him it was quite normal. His parents were retired and had nothing to do. So caring for my son enriched their lives. He brought them joy and happiness.

I decided to go abroad when my son was five years old. In the UK I studied and worked at Starbucks. When I came back to visit, we agreed that we would look after the child ourselves. That is why I came back. My husband had realized, that we needed to have our own, independent family. It was late, but in the end we found our way to manage our family life. I am happy now.

Wendy invited us to her home in a fancy, British style compound. She held a tea ceremony for us. She loves to care for her flowers in the garden and keeps the house cozy and beautifully decorated. Her son is 21 years old and she tells us that she is very proud of him.  She has found a new passion: she loves to travel the whole world, to go hiking up in the mountains. Many of her pictures show her on European and American summits.

不同 Different 相同 The Same

Monica
Monica 馥彤 》

Monica

  1. born in the year of the ox
  2. from Beijing
  3. preparing the ‚gaokao‘ *)

My dad is a military officer. We have always lived in the same military compound. My mother is very open-minded. She encourages me to see the bigger world. I would say both of my parents support me – especially with my decision to study abroad.

I think some of my peers, who are heavily influenced by American or Japanese-Korean pop-culture, still like traditional Chinese TV-series. In addition to this, many are still interested in the traditional Chinese culture. I, for example practice calligraphy, while some of my friends, they read the traditional books, Chinese classics.

Talking about a wish for myself, the first thing that comes to my mind is to read more books. I want to get in touch with different cultures and different minds throughout the history. And right now I think the only – no the cheapest! – way to do this is by reading books. And I think our Chinese history and culture is worth studying.

There are a lot of subjects within the Chinese culture and traditions that perhaps, needs reinterpretation. For example the Confucian ideas. These are all the values of our own history, our own identity and I think that the current China is losing these connections to our own ideas. I want to spread the idea of respecting history from all countries of the world.

*) university entrance examination

Monica, even though she is a young student, is impressively clear and very articulated. Her English is excellent and she radiates the impression of having a deep mind, being a deep thinker. She loves her culture and her country but at the same time strives to find out more about other cultures, about foreign countries, foreign history. A young person who does not just think about her personal path, but also about the paths of her peers and her generation.

不同 Different 相同 The Same

Han
Han 寒 》

Han

  1. born in the year of the horse
  2. sells tofu and entrails in a fresh market
  3. moved to Beijing in 2008 from Hebei Province

In the village where I come from, all people are Muslims. I grew up with the Muslim culture. You have to be sincere. We learned how to do good business. My parents also sold meat: sheep and beef. My father taught me how to sell it.

Religion is very important to us. For example at a funeral: When my grandmother died, we asked an experienced, old man from the village to hold the ceremony. For the Han-Chinese, they just call a company that provides it all.

You are Muslim from birth. We don’t pray every day, only during festivities and on special occasions. Most young people don‘t learn the religion in the same way the old people did.

Our language is very difficult. The children hardly learn it. When they are grown up, sometimes, they go to a temple to learn the language. At home we only speak Han-Chinese. It is only when the older people speak Hui that we also have to answer in Hui.

I hope, that my children will not become salespersons in a market. It‘s too tiring. It‘s so difficult. They will do, whatever they want.

In the mornings, I have to get up very early to arrange the products. My young daughter has to come with me. The rent at the market is so high, I earn only very little from selling. I have to work every day. It is only during Chinese New Year that I have some days off. It‘s difficult, because we don‘t earn enough money. My husband leaves in the evening at around 9 pm to get the products at a wholesale. When he comes back, I go to the market and he takes care of our daughter.

Every afternoon I look forward to coming home and seeing my daughter. During winter and summer holidays, my mother brings my son. Then I‘m happy.

Zhang sells tofu and entrails in a lively Chinese fresh market. The surrounding wall of her sales stall is decorated with a colorful Muslim carpet. She serves clients while answering our questions. Her eyes, slightly covered with a mask, twinkle while she talks about her little daughter. It‘s difficult to reach her with our questions – her daily life is tough. She doesn‘t indulge herself in hopes and dreams. Just like in the other interviews, we ask her, if she wants to know something from us. Her question: “Why are you doing this?” – “We are very interested in you. And we want to bring the stories of Chinese women to Germany.”

不同 Different 相同 The Same

Lina
Lina 丽娜 》

Lina

  1. zodiacs are meaningless
  2. comes from Dalian
  3. first blind alumna of CUC

When I was only two or three months old, I was found to have an eyesight problem. The doctor diagnosed that I had a congenital eyesight disease. Around the age of ten I lost my eyesight completely.

My parents cared about me very much and sent me to the school for the blind to receive education. From the age of eight, I lived in the school for the blind for eleven years. I went home four times a year.

The necessary social contact with the outside world was rare. Because of this, students cannot fully develop their mind growing up. The only specialized subject in high school is massage. It creates a very limited space for the blind to enter the society.

In the past, I thought that it was not so difficult for me to achieve my goals, but in reality it was very difficult. I worked as a masseuse for three years. I used my break time to contact local universities, hoping they would give me a chance to study.

Then I saw a project of a specialized organization for the blind: Beijing Hongdandan Education and Culture Exchange Center. They were providing trainings for young blind people to study broadcast hosting and radio program production. Studying there was the first turning point in my life.

Later I participated in a national recitation competition; it was hosted by the Central People´s Broadcasting Station. I finally won the second prize! The teachers in the Xiaqing Cup committee helped me have a chance to pursue a degree study at the Communication University of China (CUC). I became the first blind student there. Because of the attention of media and social circles, I was allowed to attend the examination. From now on, all blind people can participate in the exam.

Helping the visually impaired people to have a freer and obstacle-free life is the dream, that I am striving for. Besides, I will not give up another dream: become a real broadcaster, a host.

We meet Lina at Hongdandan Education and Culture Exchange Center. The old courtyard house has a friendly atmosphere. It‘s located close to the Drum and Bell Towers, deep in the old city center of Beijing. Lina is a young woman who speaks quietly but very clear, like someone used to speaking in front of an audience. The longer she reveals her life to us, the more we get to know her as a fighter for freedom and equality. She deeply impresses us and we feel like talking to the Jeanne d‘Arc of the blind.

不同 Different 相同 The Same

Fu Ren
Tian Ren 天人 》

Tian Ren

  1. born in the year of the dragon
  2. street vendor
  3. from Wuhan

I sell ‘jian bing‘, Chinese pancakes. I have many foreigners as customers because there are a lot of international schools around here. My children are at home; no, no, not in Beijing. Here, I don‘t have time for the children. I have too much work to do.

When the children are on vacation they come to visit me here, sometimes for two months. For spring festival I visit them at home. My husband also works in Beijing. He is a driver.

My wish? Oh, I have so many! I have many wishes. I would love for my children to be able to stay with me. I would like to have a safe job and a regular income. I hope me and my family stay healthy. I would love to live happily together with my family and all of our relatives.

For China? A wish? I never even thought about it. For China I do not have any wishes; I am happy the way it is. Every day I work here for two hours and afterwards I clean my stall. I prepare all the sauces and I go shopping.

Sometimes I sell at other locations. I live close by, it just takes me three minutes to get here. I want to work in Beijing for five to six more years, then go back home. I have been working here for six years already.

Tian Ren has parked her stall on the parking lot of a western style supermarket. We started to talk to her and she told us some things about her life. When we took the picture it was very important to her to look pretty. She flattened her apron and complained about how bad her stall looked. We all had a good laugh because in some respects, women are the same everywhere in the world.

不同 Different 相同 The Same

Ting Ting
Ting Ting 婷婷 》

Ting Ting

  1. born in the year of the dragon
  2. assistant in an international company
  3. from Hebei Province

My family is very poor. I remember my childhood, where the living conditions for my family were not very good. I love my parents and my parents love me – that’s for sure. It is from them, that I learned how to have a positive attitude.

I want to tell you a story. I have – no – I had a boyfriend. Three months ago. We were together for four years. Two of those years we lived together. Now I’m 28 years old and my parents think, I am old and it is time for me to marry. I discussed the marriage with my boyfriend. My parents said that we should buy an apartment in Beijing. My boyfriend said that he doesn’t have the money to buy an apartment in Beijing.

Even if you save money in the bank you have to pay a deposit. We don’t even have enough money for that. The apartments in Beijing are far too expensive. His family is also poor. My parents were not happy. That is why I left him. It is a pity.

For my parents, it is not acceptable that we continue to live in a rented apartment. I moved out of the apartment. I don’t want to devastate them or lie to them. I am the only child in the family. That’s the problem.

Now I have to find a man who has an apartment. It is truly, truly a pity. I have explained my thoughts to my parents very, very clearly. But my dad got very mad. He told me, if I wanted to marry this man who has no money and no apartment, he would not consider me as his daughter anymore.

For me, love is very important. I would love to stay with my boyfriend forever. My boyfriend is stunned by all of this. He sees that he is responsible for buying an apartment for his wife. But he can‘t change the situation. The reality is, that my parents don’t want this. I have to consider my parents’ point of view. China is a society built on relationships.

Ting Ting is a friendly, “no-nonsense” young lady. Everything that she has, she has achieved through own strength and determination. She lived in Germany for quite some time while pursuing her studies. It was then, that she gained another perspective of the world, but also a clearer picture of her own world. She explained to us the Chinese way of thinking, its beliefs and traditions. She feels very strongly about her culture – one that she loves and in which she takes her place.

不同 Different 相同 The Same

December
December 爱悦 》

December 

  1. born in the year of the horse
  2. student
  3. from Beijing

I think a horse is powerful and has a positive attitude. Like a horse, I am good in running. At school, I used to do 800, 1,500 and 3,000 meters. Even today, whenever I feel sad or bad I put on my running shoes and run outdoors. It is a feeling just like going home.

My family is composed of four people: my father, my mother, I and my brother, who is three years younger than I am.

Up until I was seven years old, I lived with my paternal grandparents. I was the only child, that was raised by them. I have never thought about why I lived with my grandparents … maybe my mother was working? I don´t know.

My grandparents died when I was in elementary school. My parents did not talk about the death of my grandparents. We don´t have a religion. I do not believe in  anything, like God or Buddha. I accept, if other people have a religion. I am just afraid of the spirits of the dead. I believe they are there. I have not seen a spirit. Sometimes, when I am afraid of them, I just try to think of something else.

Unlike most of my peers, I sometimes like to be all alone. When I am all by myself, I sometimes feel a little lonely, but it also gives me the chance to really get to know myself, who I am and also, I can think for myself, decide for myself. I think it is a good chance for me to become independent from others.

If I had one wish for myself, I would like to have the right boyfriend. But no, I would like to have a positive attitude. I would like to be young, not in terms of looks or body. But rather, in terms that I dare to do things I am afraid of doing. And I wish I do not give up the things I want to do. I hope to have strength, the power in my mind and the creativity to follow my dreams.

We met December in her dormitory on the campus. She shares her room with three others. Personal space is limited but each of the young women creates and decorates her own little space uniquely and individually. She thinks a lot about how she can meet her parents‘ expectations, but at the same time how to stay true to herself. Gaining independence within the strong boundaries of family is challenging her.

不同 Different 相同 The Same

Tao
Tao 涛 》

Tao

  1. born in the year of the dog
  2. from Beijing
  3. Wushu professor

I grew up with my parents and my younger brother. I started my Wushu career at the very young age of six. My father took me outside for running, stretching and kicking. The training was very hard. I remember my grandma telling my father: “You are so mean! Don´t do that to my granddaughter.” But I am very thankful to my father. He just pushed me to go forward.

My mother just took care of me. She wanted me to be happy. She was proud of me because later on I was the only one out of 20 classmates who was accepted to a special sports boarding school. I did not need to do any application tests at the university. They picked me! I wanted to continue my Wushu career. I graduated from this university – and I am still here! I think that´s good.

Wushu is a traditional Chinese culture. It is not just about technique, but also about philosophy. So it is not only about muscles and movements; it is about concentration and focus. When I face difficulties in life I know I will be strong.

When I asked my American students, what is the most important thing you learned in Wushu they said, “Respect. Respect your teacher, respect your classmates, respect your rivals.“

In Chinese we have a saying: If you want to go left, you have to go right first.  Then your movements will get more fluid and more beautiful.

I hope the Chinese improve their cultural confidence. Just like Wushu. I hope, that many people would love their culture.

We met Tao at the university where she teaches. From her students she expects discipline and respect and it is obvious that she loves what she teaches. She shows us some Wushu movements and the perfection of it is strikingly beautiful. In her office there is a collection of all the cups she won at competitions.

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Shu Ling
Shu Ling 淑伶 》

Shu Ling

  1. born in the year of the monkey
  2. owner of a cigarette shop
  3. from Hebei Province

When we came to Beijing we opened this store. We sell cigarettes because – how can I put it – because of the market demand. This business runs very well. My customers come and like to chat. I like that a lot. And also I am free! I work when I want to work. I go out when I have things to do.

My father passed away when he was 50 years old. He suffered from cancer. At that time I was 20 years old and not married, never had a relationship. He was especially concerned about me. When I was 22 years I finally married. I married a man I chose myself. When my father died my two brothers earned enough money for the whole family.

I really hope that my son does well at work. That way he can find his girlfriend, get married and have a stable life. For him I think health is the most important. He went to university for five years. He studied design, engineering design.

For myself I hope to stay healthy. And that the whole family lives happily together. And of course I hope to have a grandchild soon. And then I will take care of the baby. Definitely. Chinese people are like this, aren‘t they? For my grandchild I just hope he grows up happily.

The interview took place in her small shop. It‘s very cold; that‘s why the plastic curtains at the entrance are closed, and the customers hardly have any room to move. But there‘s a lot of space behind the counter. All the closets on the wall are full of cigarettes. The family lives in the adjacent room. During the interview, many customers enter and buy cigarettes or top up their cellphones. Shu Ling helps the elderly customers patiently and types the long code numbers into their phones.

不同 Different 相同 The Same

Panda
Panda 》

Panda

  1. born in the year of the ox
  2. musician
  3. married to a chef

Why my name is Panda? In middle school I was very funny and I was very wild. Everybody called me ‘xiong mao’, that means panda. It’s a very important animal in China. I thought, “Oh, Panda! It’s very Chinese. Maybe my ideas are very different, very international, but I am Chinese.” So I thought, “I like that. I am Panda.” I use the English term.

When I was six years old I started to play the piano. It was really bad, because my Mama pushed me. Every day I had to play for two hours. Do homework, play piano, every day. It was very, very bad. My childhood was very black. It wasn‘t happy. It was very sad. My Mama beat me. My grandma said, “Please, don’t beat your kid. She is not happy. She wants to be happy, she wants to enjoy her childhood!” But Mama said, “No; she will be a master, she will be a musician.” So my Baba cried, he said, “The child is very sad, very unhappy.” But nobody could stop her from beating me.

In middle school I stopped. Then, after some years, I told my Mama, “I want to play music again. Before it was you, who pushed me. But now I need music! I don’t know what is my life. But if I don’t have music, I will die.“ Music is my life! Now I am a teacher myself! I can do it my way. I don’t push my students. I stopped Mamas way, yeah. I ask them, “Do you like it?” – “Yes, I like it!” – “Then let’s do it.” They are very happy!

Traditionally, children had to be very obedient. But I think music is listening. It’s not reading. It’s not about using the eye. It’s about using the ear. Touch – for example the keyboard; touch, listen, sing, play.

OK, I tell you a secret. I have tattoos. Metronomes, a music box, love me tender love me…, pandas, a bossa nova song, a cupcake, cheese, cherries – it’s not common in China. My Mama said, “I don’t have no child anymore, go!”  But now she wants to have tattoos. My Baba said, “Are you crazy? How old are you?” But she said, “Why not?” 

When we met Panda, she was cheerful and full of energy. Other than the usual introductions, we began taking pictures, before doing the interview. She loves to pose and present herself. It is obvious that she loves the stage. During the interview, she plays a variety of roles. She laughs, sings and acts out whatever she wants to express. It takes a while before we discover another side to her: a woman who suffered and fought her way through; a woman with a deep soul and a mission.

不同 Different 相同 The Same

Yao Ting
Yao Ting 耀庭 》

Yao Ting

  1. born in the year of the dog
  2. came to Beijing in 1953 from Hebei Province
  3. worked as a ticket seller at a bus company

The granddaughter of Yao Ting tells us about her:

When my step-grandmother was eight years old, her father died. Her mother could not do the farm work, because she had bound feet. They were three children, two daughters and one son. The son died a few years later when he was nine years old. At that time, this was a very serious issue for a family. My step-grandma told me, that it was a shock to her mother when her son died. But she remembers, although they were only three women, it was a happy time. They had a lot of fun, they laughed a lot.

My step-grandma didn‘t want to marry my grandpa. But her relatives knew him very well. He was married to another woman before. They introduced them. Though he was divorced, he was a very kind person with a very good career development in the future. They knew he was a good husband and they encouraged her to marry him.

She faced a lot of hard times. At the beginning, she had difficulties with her mother-in-law. Then, there were a lot of children to be cared for. When her mother-in-law got a serious disease, she had to take care of her for many, many years.

Her happy life was from 1970 to 1990, around twenty years. I believe it began after I was born. Her mother-in-law had passed away. And the financial situation of the family was better. In 1989 my grandpa retired, the children were all married. Then they had a few happy years. Afterwards, my grandpa had the same disease as his mother, so again, she had to take care of her husband who was lying in bed.

Today, an ayi takes care of my grandma. We were thinking about having her live with my parents, or with my uncle or auntie. But there were a lot of problems. Some people say that the generation of my grandma is unlucky. When they are young and married, the mother-in-law is very tough. When they get older, their daughter-in-law is very tough. And so, with this, she prefers to live alone.

We were invited to visit Yao Ting in her small apartment, the same place where the whole family lived years ago. The furniture and decoration reminded us of our own grandmas‘ living rooms. Her step-granddaughter did not only serve as a translator, but she openly shared her family‘s fascinating history with us: “I hope it is helpful for you to know more stories about this country and these special times in China.“

We were able to witness a very loving relationship between these two women.