Weathering through the days

To be honest, I think caring about the weather is just another sign of adulthood. When you’re a kid you go out if it rains cats and dogs, get totally dirty and still convince your parents to just let you shower next week. Now I still do not shower that regularly, but before I go out nowadays, I rigorously refresh a weather app or website.

Now, this change started to come in China, because besides regular weather forecasts, there was also the smog alerts. If you knew next week was going to be shrouded in grey mists, it would make you much more motivated to go outside while it was still acceptable. Afterwards, the pandemic broke out and the only thing we can do is go out. So besides being much more glued to our screens already, we have another thing we can check through them.

And to be honest, sometimes it is kind of fun. Since sports is only possible outside now since I need a certain height, I try to maximize the time that I can be outside. It may be dry at 15.00 on Sunday. But then again there may be wind, rain, snow who knows.

Which is by the way a crazy phenomenon which I also experienced in China in August. I think rain and hail at very unexpected moments, in great quantities, is one of the most shocking things to experience. It is cold, but not as cold as it normally is when these things happen, but more importantly it is very useless. Everything disappears in a matter of minutes or hours, it is all so futile. Like your life flashes by in a few seconds.

And the problem, especially in the Netherlands, is that forecasts are notoriously unreliable. You can only feel cheated. It follows almost the same age-old adagio of bring your umbrella so you can make sure it does not rain. Put on your rain boots so you surely do not need them. On the other hand, we do have beautiful skies here. The best solution may be to just stare at them a bit more often to just see what is actually happening up there.

China: an olfactory journey

I read an article today about our sense of smell and how it is generally undervalued. Mentioned briefly, but not expanded upon is the fact that smell plays a bigger role in non-Western cultures. I immediately was reminded of China, which is truly a country to be experienced by all 5 (or 6 if you have them) senses. A day experienced through the nose would be something like this:

Breakfast
About 50% if not more of Chinese eat their breakfast outside. Especially if you have gruelling 996 working hours, but that is something to discuss in more detail another time. You can find the food by smelling it. The small food carts and stalls where jianbing, youtiao and baozi are fried and steamed right in front of you. Even if you have had something at home, you may grab something extra, just because it smells so good.

Morning at the office
Because so many people get their breakfast on the way to the office, in the morning it is often a combination of different foods, hanging in the air. Combined with the damp office where everyone is inside most of the time and not always a window open because of pollution outside, this can be a less fun olfactory experience though.

Lunch
Just as you’re starting to smell the warmed up, home-cooked meals of your colleagues, you can often slip outside with some others to go lunch at a restaurant. A restaurant always has a strong smell of something being prepared, some spices hanging in the air if it is a good one.

Afternoon shopping
I do not know how they do it, but many shopping malls have the same smell. It is a slightly sweet smell, mixed with cleaning products and makes every mall you enter vaguely familiar. Maybe you will get something sweet, almost all cafes have a flowery, sweet scent that makes your teeth ache without eating their cakes. Looking for a toilet? You will smell it before seeing it, which is not always a good thing of course.

Grocery shopping
Many groceries can be bought at wet markets, but even super markets often have a ‘fresh’ section. This means that there will be many fishy, meaty and fruity smells pointing you to the right aisles. And for good measure, if you do not have the time to cook yourself, you will undoubtedly smell the oil and garlic of the instant-cooking section where you can get a snack or dish fully prepared to take away.

Dinner
Garlic, ginger and oil. Many Chinese dishes require a combination of these 3, and plenty of other spices and sauces of course, promising to have your kitchen smelling fantastic (if it all goes well) and your stove a mess. If successful, Chinese food is the kind where everyone will be taking a few deep sniffs of every dish before actually eating it.

How to know if you mastered a language

I learned multiple languages throughout my life and am actually adding another one (Russian) at this moment. Of course I learn languages because I find it fun, and it is very nice to be able to list more than 4 languages you can speak. But at the same time, it can be quite frustrating to get a certain fluency in these different languages.

The language this counts the most for in my case is Chinese. I have a Chinese face, which is kind of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it is very convenient to be able to blend into streets in East-Asia and not have anyone question if I am a local or not. At the same time it places certain expectations on you that I cannot meet. Because I am a foreigner there. But nobody believes me.

When I was still studying Chinese, I started out speaking it very badly. I know that because I was reminded of it everytime I talked to locals. Even more so since I hung out with Dutch-Chinese friends who spoke Wenzhounese or Cantonese at home and thus sounded a lot more natural. New friends even told me that they could not really understand me for the first 6 months in Chinese, but somehow everything had worked out fine.

Generally, my conversations would go something like:

Q: Can you tell me where the subway station is?
A: ThesubwaystationisoverthereandyoujustgonorththenturnleftandarriveatentranceA.
Q: Sorry, can you repeat?
A: Howcomeyoucannotunderstand? WhyisyourChinesesobad?
Q: I am not Chinese, can you talk a bit slower?
A: YouarenotChinese? ButyoulookChinese!
Q: Please, just tell me where the subway station is.
A: Go north. Then turn left.

For most ‘general’ foreigners, the conversation goes something like:

Q: Ni hao, can you tell me where the subway station is?
A: Oh my! Your Chinese is so good! The subway station is north and then turn left.

Quite a difference and it caused me to be pretty frustrated while learning Chinese. Now that I am more fluent, in a foreign environment and not expected to speak Chinese, I get the opposite. After all these years people sudenly start complimenting me. Saying that for a foreigner (the keyword of course) my Chinese is very good. And I always think to myself: “TOO LATE, I WILL NOT ACCEPT YOUR COMPLIMENT. SHOULD HAVE SAID THAT ABOUT 10 YEARS EARLIER.” Plus, now it makes me question my level of Chinese. Is it only good because they know I am a foreigner? Do I now also have the ‘benefit’ of foreigner bias?

I guess it is asking yourself these questions that shows you have some proficiency.

An incomplete list of things that the whole world shares during celebrations

It is the first day of the year of the ox. It is also Carnaval in catholic parts or Northwest Europe. And of course Valentine’s Day is coming up. I was just thinking about the ways everyone celebrates differently, but some things keep coming back. An incomplete list:

  1. Good food. I was talking about this a while back with friends and we determined that the one holiday in China which does not heavily involve food is probably Tomb Sweeping Day. Judging by the name you can probably guess why. That said, most other celebrations are mainly about the food, and the same actually counts for many Western holidays. Truth be told, chocolate eggs do not make me drool as much as mooncakes or zongzi, but I will take what I can get now.
  2. Family fights. I talked more about this in this blog. One of the best New Year’s stories I have.
  3. Family reunions. We know we will fight and have to listen to aunts and uncles complaining about everything, including our own accomplishments, but we always suck it up and just do it. It is funny how much of a change blood and the knowledge that it only happens once a year makes for our toleration of others.
  4. Decorations. I like decorating as much as everyone else, but if you really think about it does not make any sense. Why do we have all this stuff which we show to everyone once a year, but it inappropriate the rest of the year. I actually do get those Chinese Christmas stickers that are not removed.
  5. Annoying kids.
  6. Unrealistic ads.
  7. Unrealistic expectations.
  8. Dressing up.
  9. Travelling distances to gather. I am lucky to not have had the need or space within the country to travel very far, but it happens. On a large scale. Voluntarily.

If you think about it, we are all united in making it hard for ourselves during a time we are supposed to relax and enjoy. We not only pressure ourselves, but also each other to be happy about situations we normally would not put ourselves in. That is a universal holiday message.

Text as an art form

Literally anything is printed on clothes now. There are (in)famous examples with swear or curse words, but everything from internet memes and slogans to good old brand names features on clothing now.

I think in the past years a so-called reverse trend took place here. Actually, ever since the Superdry brand became a regular on Western streets, I feel there are much more Chinese and Japanese characters on clothing. In addition, friends who know Japanese told me Superdry’s Japanese brand name also does not make sense. It is like we have come full circle. Granted, I have not seen any clothes with Japanese or Chinese curse words yet on a grand scale, but that may just be the next step.

I understand the attraction of text on clothing, I wanted to be a cool girl very badly when in high school and craved a sweater with the brand right on front. But once I got old enough to not care that much about those things (although who am I kidding, I literally write hoping people like reading it) I actively banished all clothing with text on it.

On my first few trips to China, I remember everyone in the travel group being mystified of the incoherent English on clothes and products. But thinking back to it now, it seems just a less extreme version of the Chinese characters that Western people like to get as tattoos. And to be fair, I think almost nobody can escape the coolness or mystery that a foreign language exudes. I remember going through travel stuff I kept after learning Chinese and discovering all the wedding/hospital/cram school flyers I found because I thought them special when I did not understand anything on them.

And to be honest, I have a few years ago caved once and got a t-shirt with text on it. In Dutch even. But that is just to pretend with my Chinese face that I may not know what it says, even though I do very well. It is this irony that my generation excells in, something I talk about more in this blog. At face value, nobody realizes this, but being misunderstood is probably the favorite state of being for many of us.

Familiar flavors: Hotpot

With the holidays right around the corner, food and dinner finally get the attention they deserve in the West. Not entirely coincidentally, that was what a big part of my daily life revolved around in China. And even though there is limited family gathering this year, there have been plans to do hotpot. Which will be great, but just not the same.

Hotpot

What is it?
Simply said, you boil raw veggies and meat in a soup. Does not sound too special or appealing, but it is great. You have many different kinds of soups, really the cornerstone of hotpot. Additionally, you have the fun of literally cooking your own food, and enjoying some nice soup on the side. Sitting around a big hot pot of soup really gives you warm fuzzy feelings (also because of the warm food entering your belly) and you can basically eat anything for hotpot. You combine hotpot with a dipping sauce most often sesame sauce (the best, one and only I will recognize) but especially in southern China everyone makes their own concoction out of different options.

When to eat it?
If we believe haidilao, a big chain, then 24/7. But normally, hotpot is eaten during winter, most often for dinner or as a very elaborate midnight snack (hence the 24/7 opening times). Rules are there to be broken of course so summer time makes for a nice hotpot opportunity as well. Nothing can rival winter hotpot inside and winter outside though.

Anything bad?
Some hotpot soups can be very spicy. I remember I went to Sichuan with a couple of friends and I literally could not taste anything I fished out because the soup made my whole mouth numb and tingle. Otherwise there are no real drawbacks to hotpot, you can avoid anything you do not like that others put in there. It can only be a shame if some things are overcooked and then only found after they have disintegrated.

Where to get it?
Haidilao and Xiabu xiabu are probably the 2 most well-known chains. Xiabu xiabu is more of a fastfood chain with rows of individual, 1-person hot pots. Haidilao is on the other end of the chain, not-quite-fine-dining hotpot but famous for its good, (slightly creepy but) very friendly service, long wait lines (but you can do your nails while waiting so…) and high quality products. And of course there are many other places to go to for hotpot as well, although your mileage may vary.

How much do I miss it?
About 8.5/10, especially now it is winter. There is hotpot in the Netherlands, but it is far from my home and probably quite expensive. And it is also about the convenience of hotpot, the fact all the veggies are pre-cut and served directly on a plate, then quickly going into your mouth. And lastly it is also about the company you share the table with. So here is to hoping 2021 will bring the real stuff!

Learn more

The 3 Chinese ways to repair a bike

I biked a lot while in China. Of course it has to do with my Dutch upbringing, but it’s a nice way to move through a big city. Less walking than the extensive metro network, less traffic jams and people around you than in the overcrowded buses.

But nothing lasts forever, certainly not the average Chinese bike. Even though they may leave the bubble plastic on it (which makes it look only more dirty after a week). And because I am a responsible adult, I naturally repair my bike for these small things.

The Chinese have a special way of dealing with bikes. Although they used to be the standard modus operandi, they have long since been replaced by a plethora of ridiculous and less ridiculous vehicles like: electric scooters and steps, hoover boards, unicycles, tuk tuks, and more. But repairs for bikes, and most other 2-wheeled vehicles as well, still take place next to these small iron closets that are opened every morning by the repairers. I don’t really know why, but normally these shops are also combined with a shop to make keys or repair them. Perhaps theh run lucrative businesses copying the keys for the bike locks so they can sell the bikes?

In any case, the actual repair process almost always goes along of the 3 ways described below.

1. You have something that is broken and they can easily repair it with something that will break again in a few weeks. But hey, you can still use it in the meantime.

2. They give it a good hit with either a limb or a tool. Often this solution proves to be surprisingly long term.

3. Once they start to repair it they get stellar advice from their neighbor. Or the next person waiting for the repair. They may even ask you. The result varies on the advice given of course.

Familiar flavors: Chinese crepes

A couple of weeks ago I was musing about all the different kinds of food I miss about China. She said I should make a cookbook, collecting the recipes of these refined and less refined dishes to educate the Dutch. I am not sure about that, but since nostalgia is a powerful thing, I am only remembering these dishes more fondly.

I am not a great cook. I am an okay cook, generally more interested in the eating than preparing. That is why Asia is such a great place to be, all this wonderful food at your fingertips for a fraction of the price you pay in the West. So let me make your mouth water by the impossibility of finding these things elsewhere.

Chinese crepes

What is it?
A thin pancake batter is spread out with a stick on a heated plate. Crack an egg on top of it so it fully merges with the batter, add some sesame seeds if available, and flip it. Add a dark, salty sauce on top, some chili and any toppings of your liking, at least scallions, cilantro and pickles. After adding a sheet of fried crispy rice, fold it closed and hack it a few times with your spatula before elegantly shoving it into a plastic bag and in one go give it to your hungry customer.

When to eat it?
Any time of the day. It can be a breakfast, lunch, dinner or anytime-of-day-snack. I preferred to eat jianbing either for breakfast or dinner, or as an after-lunch snack, or as a pre-lunch snack. Depending on the toppings (lettuce is nice, tofu as well) or the amount of eggs (double or triple eggs!) it probably encompasses everything that you need for a healthy meal.

Anything bad?
Often, jianbing sauce can be a bit clumpy and the hygiene at most of these stalls is probably less than even the average restaurant in China. Also, I am heavily biased but Shanghai/southern jianbing are vastly inferior to the ones in Beijing or northern cities. And I once had a jianbing with a friend at a stall where the crepes were pre-made and just needed to be heated up. We added a sausage in the middle for some extra bite and texture, but it still tasted awfully rubbery and bad.

Where to get it?
In Beijing, there was a great stall next to the Liangmaqiao subway station. It was a family (or so it seemed) with parents, a son and a daughter all in the business. They did not only sell jianbing, but they could all make them. Over time, I knew whose jianbing were the best (the father and son’s) and who would skimp a bit on the toppings (mostly the younger generation). It was wonderful, so obviously they disappeared one day suddenly. The other place I remember very distinctly is at 798, it even had its own Dianping page! They were well-known for adding tofu in their jianbing, and all was good again. A pity 798 was quite far away, but I am now even further away so I should not have complained.

How much do I miss it?
About 9.5/10 I think. Especially since breakfast stalls are not really a thing in the Netherlands. I eat my dry cruesli in the morning without complaints, but it is not the same at all. I have had a jianbing here as takeaway, which means it was pretty cold at the time I had a first bite. It was not the same at all. I guess I just have to indulge myself once I get to China again!

Learn more

Tourists with Chinese characteristics: bashful backpackers

Although we are in a worldwide pandemic, holidays are not something to be missed. The national holiday in China just passed and I looked with envy at all the traveling going on in the country. It also reminded me of the different kinds of Chinese travelers I would have encountered.

Who?
Millennials, Generation Zs, youngsters who think they are ready to go out into the world. They have enough money to spend on traveling abroad and by themselves, or have enough courage to just dive into the world. Almost always in a pair, either a couple or 2 friends.

Where?
The Lonely Planet and Rough Guide seem a bit too crisp in their hands. They go to the hip coffee places and with an unsure look on their faces order that specific instagrammable drink. Arriving at the desk of hip hostels, they are a bit too tired and carrying bags a bit too new. They aim to set themselves apart from big group travelers by not going to the main highlights, but instead choose all the alternative highlights from the travel guides.

Why?
What is better than traveling? By yourself! All those cool social media photos were taken someplace, without any large travel groups to disturb the environment. They want to strengthen the bond with their friend or significant other, something that will last for the rest of their lives! They have not been able to travel that much yet, so it is high time to change that. With the right equipment and preparation, the world is at their feet!

Thoughts?
How is this so tiring? The bags are heavy, it is too hot and wiping away my sweat just creates more sweat. And after we finally find this small hostel, where our bags barely fit in the lockers, we need to look for another hip dessert shop to get their signature dish. It is fun sometimes, but being together with the other for all this time is actually pretty difficult. And getting the good camera shots is not easy. When do we go home again?

My thoughts?
I have been part of this group, albeit only for a very short time. I knew after doing it for a few weeks, that the backpacking life was not for me. So I always look a bit bemusedly at these hipsters who seem like they just discovered a new way of life that they are not sure they like. Oftentimes, it also seems like the backpackers are ‘backpacking by the book’. The few times I went to well-known local places, I think I always saw a few of them pop up. But hey, I was there as well so we are almost the same. And yeah, if your parents don’t have backpacking equipment, you indeed need to buy it. At least it will be well-worn by the time your kids will want to use them,

Just wait and see, and then I did not

A funny little thing as I grow older, is that my concept of time feels somewhat warped. Either things are going really slow or really fast, there seems to be no inbetween anymore. I either feel like I am 11 or 88. Becoming 30 is weird.

Of course when you are not 30, right up until you are 29 or so, it feels very far away. And most people around me liked to sum up all the things I for sure would do, change or become before or once I hit that milestone. It is now becoming 50, but that is way too far ahead for now. So I thought it would be a good moment to take stock and see if these predictions were actually true or not.

  1. Having a lot of stuff: not true

    Up ’till I moved to China 5 years ago, I loved having stuff. Almost half of it was with my parents, because I did not feel like moving it around all the time, and the other half I mostly used. I also tended to buy quite some physical things still, mainly books. Which are great to read, but also pretty heavy to carry. Then I moved 4 times in the last 5 years, and my view changed. I started to question this whole idea of wanting or needing to have stuff, and managed to cut down on a lot of it. Being back in the Netherlands, having almost everything in 1 spot now and knowing what I have is very satisfying. I thought things would just pile up as I got older, but it turned out to be a choice, not a natural course of life.

  2. Not fitting in my clothes anymore: (mostly) not true

    I used to consume a lot of food, and I still do, especially compared to most Dutch people. When I was younger, I combined this with a fast metabolism, half-hearted attempts at sports and generally convincing myself I was okay with not being very thin. Fast forward to 2019 and I started doing aerial silks fanatically. Not only is it the first sport in years that I actually enjoy, but it is also a pretty good way to ensure I am not going to grow out of my clothes anytime soon. Only perhaps in shoulder width, but my belly is flatter than it was 5 years ago. Also, now owning multiple pairs of yoga pants will also help me fitting in my clothes for the next 10 years.

  3. Getting children: not true

    I have never really liked children and it is largely mutual. I try to look menacing to any kid that comes within 1.5 meters reach. When I was still young, around 12 or something, my mom once joked that there could be babies falling from the skies. I told her mortified that I would never go out again if that happened. Many people told me I would change my mind once I got older. I have not yet and I do not think it will happen. Especially now I have the age where more people around me get babies and I see more of them. Babies are not cute, they cannot do anything themselves and they cannot communicate anything clearly. I would much rather have a cat in that case. Which I coincidentally do.

  4. Stop crying: not true

    How I wish this one would be true. I do not bruise easily, but I cry really easily. I think for the longest time I held out hopes that I would grow out of it and when I was younger I had the perception that adults never or only rarely cried. Perhaps it would only happen around the times that my hormones were whack and I could blame my period. Alas, it did not work and it is probably the reason I drink 6 liters of tea every day. I need to keep myself hydrated so I am ready whenever I need to be.

  5. Reading the paper daily: true

    With one of my best friends I have the running jokes that everything I know or hear about I get from the newspaper. It is true about 90% of the time. I used to be very ignorant about the news and everything happening in the world, probably like more teenagers, but it all changed in my second year of university. I took some journalism courses and learned to understand the importance of knowing what is happening around you. Further than your parents’ backyard. I now think time spent reading the news is time well-spent. I will become one of those elderly people who will complain about all the bad things happening and how it was better in my days. I am earnestly practicing for it.