Suddenly it is okay to be cliché

The holidays are the peak of cheesyness. Once Christmas comes around, things you normally do not want to be near to suddenly seem charming and cosy. This light veneer covers the few weeks around Christmas and the few days afterwards feel weirdly bleak. New Year’s does not have the same cosyness and atmosphere attached to it. Rather, we are all reminded of goals that are more or less realistic we will hold ourselves to. 1 January holds a strange place in our hearts, a date to start something new but at the same time nothing really changes.

So let us think back once more to those magical days filled with things we only accept around Christmas. An incomplete list:

  1. Stars on trees. Or generally ornaments in trees. Tacky Christmas balls, shiny tinsel, fake snow, anything that is bad for the environment.
  2. Christmas stables. Real ones, wooden ones, silhouettes, dolls, even with actual people and animals (though no real baby please).
  3. Sleighs, especially the big ones with one or two horses in front. The fact that I have never ridden one probably does not help.
  4. Sleighbells. To be honest, after hearing Christmas music for multiple weeks my tolerance is almost at its end, but it remains thoroughly charming for much longer than it should.
  5. Church. I get this weird nostalgia for attending mass, in a beautiful church with this friendly priest and all these kind and warm people. Not that I have not been disappointed enough times in real life.
  6. A big piece of meat as the centerpiece. In this time of promoted sustainability and less dependence on meat, somehow we have not evolved enough yet to get a Christmassy feeling without a bizarre amount of meat on the table.
  7. Traditional Christmas clothes. Whether it is a hat, an (ugly) sweater or the Santa Claus outfit. It all seems perfectly reasonable to wear these few days a year.
  8. Eating crazy amounts of (unhealthy) food. Normally I get side-eyed by most people around me when they see how much I (want to) consume, but not around the holidays. We all get to share in the fun.
  9. Asking for gifts in huge quantities. Christmas is a maximalist dream. Catalogues are being scrutinized to ensure no potential gift is left off any list.
  10. Lights. There is an inordinate amount of light everywhere around Christmas. Inside the house, outside the house, in the street, in the store. It will be quite impossible to find any darkness for a few weeks.

Chronicling my Saint Nicholas experience because I can pt. 2

How to replace one kind of fun with a different one, but then it keeps on changing.

Young adulthood Saint Nicholas – Now you need to actually put in some effort yourself

The good:

Finally you take the reins. Saint Nicholas is something you not only celebrate with family anymore but your friends get involved. You get double the fun and may actually start to recreate some of the excitement. Of course part of the fun is getting some weird gifts that you do not need. All those times your family did not give you all those useless things, your friends are sure to help you with that. And so long as you do not every year get the excuse “I really had no time to make something better” accompanied by a raffle box, there should definitely be some memorable unpacking moments that will be commented upon for years after.

The bad:

Transitioning into adulthood is just hard, period. There is so much disappointment hiding behind each corner and the same counts for celebrating anything with friends. If you do not have too many people complaining about their inability to write poems, then you may be limited by your own crafting skills. If it is not your own crafting skills, there are bound to be some others who just do not prioritize this highlight of the year. And finally, life tends to get in the way of these celebrations and you may need to start planning 3 months on forehand, only to have to then cancel it a week on forehand because nobody has the time or energy for it.

Saint Nicholas abroad – A lesson in Dutch culture

The good:

This is the moment for Dutch culture to shine! Forget about the fact that we do not really have any food culture or a national dance. You finally get to tell about this very peculiar and special Dutch tradition. It is all good fun and you get to show others something completely new. Experiencing familiar things in a completely new situation will most definitely also get you to appreciate everything again. Yes it was loads of fun as a kid and no it is completely different from Santa Claus. The commercialization and merchandise of Saint Nicholas will seem far more benign in your head, especially because Christmas is just decorations in many non-Western countries.

You can have fun finding out if you can make some of the snacks yourself, or where to buy them, or strategically ask someone early enough but not too early to bring or send them. You will appreciate even the most basic of snacks, and may point at every chimney to remind everyone that they missed out on something great. Those poor kids.

The bad:

Foreigners will interpret everything differently. It is the moment that you will take off the rose-tinted glasses and suddenly be presented with knowledge about certain aspects you were ignorant about as a kid. You suddenly realize things are not as natural as they seemed to you. How black does one get by coming through the chimney? Why did we once think it was unproblematic to paint our faces that color and put on these wigs? And why is it always white old men bringing around these gifts and showing off their benevolence? Most importantly, the horse would explode if it ate all of the hay and carrots kids put in their boots.

And once the scales fall from your eyes, it is easy to see how much hubris is left now. There is police regularly for a children’s celebration and families can get split over such a logical development. And once you start comparing your own celebrations with those in other countries, they may seem not seem so magical anymore. Why do we not have moon bunnies that make rice cakes? Or have a selfish trickster in the form of a spider?

Thus, there is nothing like a new perspective to make you realize traditions just do not make sense. And that even though they change, it only makes it more difficult to explain to others. But that is part of the process and keeping it alive.

So is real adulthood going to ruin this even more? Probably yes. Maybe not.

Chronicling my Saint Nicholas experience because I can pt. 1

One of the few celebrations that is very special to the Netherlands. It has snacks, songs and of course gifts. But like all things that define your childhood, it changes. In most of my adult life, there has definitely been a place for Saint Nicholas and it still has a reservation. So on this festive day, I wanted to put down some of my thoughts and nostalgia on the whole development. Because that is what your thirties are for.

The Saint Nicholas story in one sentence is: an old white man with a red robe and big book rides on the roofs on horseback with helpers to deliver gifts to all the good kids.

Childhood Saint Nicholas – Like a Christmas movie

The good:

Saint Nicholas felt more exciting than my birthday to be honest. Probably because there is at least 10-14 days of buildup towards it. And that is done by putting your shoe near the chimney, stuffing it with a carrot or hay, singing a song and then receiving a gift. In my never-up-before-9 childhood, this ritual was one of the few things that had me jumping on my parents’ bed.

Another thing I remember fondly is going through huge catalogues and looking at all the toys and stuff I might want. Thinking back that I got excited about furbies and toy dogs, makes me very happy that my parents were smart enough not to give me those things though.

The bad:

I was a firm believer in the existence of this mysterious man, mainly because of his horse. At the same time, I never liked the guys that dressed up like Saint Nicholas, especially if they did not wore a red robe or were on horseback. My parents also made the smart decision to skip the dress up part, so I did not suddenly recognize my dad’s or neighbor’s slippers.

There were always Saint Nicholas welcome parades and an actual news channel that starts about 3 weeks before the celebrations. I had zero interest in any of this, even though I accepted the tv Saint Nicholas as the REAL one. I always found it difficult to immerse myself in programs where real people played an, in my eyes then, fantastical role.

And although there are many good snacks for Saint Nicholas, I remember always getting the most basic ones at school. You had these disgustingly sweet chocolate mice and frogs, which apparently have always been factory produced. Then there were the peppernuts, which you can now get in at least 20 flavors, but was not as versatile then. Let me just say it, the basic ones are not all that good. Lastly, it was the so-called taaitaai which is actually tough twice in Dutch and describes the snack perfectly. It is tough, not all that sweet and tastes like something very calvinist, very simple and devoid of enjoyment.

Tween Saint Nicholas – A lesson in growing up

The good:

Many people have a certain moment of epiphany when they realized Saint Nicholas was not real. Some may even feel betrayed by parents and family to have been told this lie for years. That was not the case for me. I cannot really remember when I knew Saint Nicholas did not exist, but I do remember everyone else getting very persistent on this, especially from 10 onwards. Those who were believers got ridiculed for getting pulled the wool over their eyes, and not believing was something the cool kids did. And I did not understand this mentality. At all. So what I remember very clearly, is talking with my mom about this and telling her I just liked the idea. Why was the whole focus on immediately throwing out the whole idea and tradition? Just because it is not true, does not mean you cannot enjoy something right? She agreed and told me we could decide in our own family that Saint Nicholas exists and we ‘believe’ in him. And a few years later, in 2007 All is Love came out which voiced this exact idea in its intro. I never felt so validated.

You can finally buy all of the good snacks, or let your parents buy them.

The bad:

Just like with other celebrations that get less special as you age, Saint Nicholas loses a lot of its magic. It is not that it gets a lot less fun, just that it pales in comparison to what you used to feel. Even though you can still do everything, the excitement is gone. It does not come back, and that is something good to start learning early.

So what is Saint Nicholas like as a real adult? As you move abroad? As society changes? More to follow soon!

Tricky translations: shawarma

Trying out a more language-focused feature on cheesy translations and slogans related to food in Chinese.

Foreign food in China has a kind of multi-level enjoyment. Not only will you be tasting familiar food that is hopefully tasty, but you can also relish in the translation they chose for your dish. Case in point here is shawarma, something that is quite popular in the Netherlands (possibly one of the few warm breakfasts the Dutch consider, although mostly only when they are students). Shawarma has not necessarily been one of my favorite dishes when I was in the Netherlands, and being back again for over a year I have not eaten it again yet. Its main redeeming feature is probably that it can be combined with lettuce, cheese and fries into the infamous kapsalon, although I normally eat that one with doner kebab.

While in Beijing, there were a few large shopping malls I went to eat. The amount of food that is available in Asian shopping malls is really unparalleled to anything we have in the Netherlands. Regardless, more choice also makes it more difficult to decide and I would often pace up and down the lanes with increasing hunger. I remember seeing for the first time the name of this restaurant and almost bursting in laughter. It was called: 想我么 shawarma. In English that translates to ‘do you miss me shawarma’. The catch is that ‘xiang wo ma’ also sounds like shawarma.

I am not sure who came up with this name. I have heard stories from friends that the person who thought up the Chinese name for Coca Cola was awarded price money (although I can find no very reliable sources with a quick Google search). Looking into it a bit more, it seems the restaurant was a collaboration between Chinese and foreign business partners in Beijing. They appear to have split and the Chinese partner omitted the ‘xiang wo ma’, but the foreign partner is still using it for their separate restaurant.

As a name, even though it is so cheesy you would not need anymore cheese with your shawarma, it works very well. Another quick Google search turned up some customers who were baffled by being asked if they had missed them. And it is very easy to remember, even for people with only a limited understanding of Chinese. I hope the restaurant can somehow get big enough to make ‘xiang wo ma’ the official translation for shawarma. I can already imagine it going viral on Douyin, creating a new holiday when you romantically eat shawarma with your friends, family and partner, as well as a cute mascot for merchandise.

But in the meantime we are stuck just eating shawarma.

The friend circle: Olympics & book

In WeChat there is this nifty feature called ‘friend circle’, which is basically akin to a Facebook timeline. Since I am not in China anymore, I do not actively follow most of what is happening in the friend circle anymore. To motivate myself to check it out a bit more often, I will list some random things I saw while scrolling down. It is also a nice way to keep a bit of a pulse on what is happening in China, of course subjectively.

Olympics

I am very uninterested in watching most sports. I am very interested in doing some sports, but the Olympics that are currently happening, do not really interest me at all. However, I saw quite some posts in my friend circle about this Japanese gymnast. Apparently he made a grave error, but still got high points regardless. And people are now critiquing the judge, the gymnast and the Olympics as unfair, partial and shameless. To be honest, I really cannot understand all the fuss being made about these things. And it is very easy to just write on Twitter “THE JUDGES NEED TO GET THEIR EYES CHECKED” if you can do that from the comfort of your home, while probably sitting down. Things the sporters are not doing.

The most interesting things about sports, is the similar reactions you see by almost everyone. The comments, about the judge’s eyes, or the sporter being a failure, or the sarcasm that he got his points is uniform. Sports really unite. But in a most ugly way.

Book

A book that one of my contacts bought, popped up that seemed interesting. The title is Seeking A Little Upward Mobility Amidst A Frenetic Life. In English, the title sounds like every other self-help book which is probably correct since the blurb says: “[This] is a spiritual book by a famous author. Listen to famous authors talk about how they read, how to keep their inner peace. How to learn to be silent, and how to cherish time. Life is too chaotic, but that doesn’t stop us from getting ahead.”

I have a sort of innate dislike of self-help books. On the other hand, I always try to motivate myself to read more. Especially in Chinese. I can read Chinese quite well, but it goes very slow. Kind of like French, where I can understand pretty much everything but prefer to look up at least 1 word per page just to make sure. And that transition to the dictionary does not go very smooth unfortunately. The story does not continue there. So a Chinese book always serves as a welcome reminder, that I would like to not spend a whopping 7 years on finishing another Chinese book, but that if I would still do should better start now.

What to add to your tea: a rant

Anybody who knows me, knows I am crazy about bubble tea. It is something I developed relatively late, but got very passionate about quite quickly. And I am rubbing it in everyone’s face that I was smart to drink all that bubble tea while in China, because we do not really have it here in the Netherlands. Let me correct that: we do not really have it where I live. Let me further correct that: they do not really have it how I want it.

To be honest, as long as there is variety, I am a very easy person. Probably counts for most people. I only ask, for some pudding. We eat vla here, it is very similar. Heck, they eat flan in France and they literally throw that stuff in your bubble tea at Yi Dian Dian. And I know bubble tea is very trendy now. Especially the cream cheese variations. But it is not the same. In this sense, I am conservative and a purist. Just give me my pudding.

And sure, if you do not have pudding I may go for jelly. The grass jelly and bubbles go quite well together, complementing flavors and textures. I sometimes got very adventurous and would opt for some yakult and coconut jelly. But that is only if I did not feel like milk tea, which honestly would only happen if I got it 4 or 5 times per week to begin with. And at Yi Dian Dian (although Coco has my heart, let that be stated black on white) they had some nice coffee jelly as well, if I wanted a hint of bitter. Sometimes I would combine taro and pudding on cold winter days with warm milk tea for a drink that could actually serve as a dinner (snack), filling you up and keeping you warm at the same time. In summer I would often opt for the smaller bubbles, just to give it a different texture. But with pudding of course.

Although I sometimes strayed, it was mostly out of necessity. If the next Coco is 1 km away and there is a Happy Lemon next door, sure. If I really craved some bubble tea and passed by a Gong Cha, I would not say no. I tried Hey Tea! 2 times, once taking a special bike ride with a colleague to one shop where there wasn’t a crazy line. The other time actually waiting for close to 90 minutes because somebody else was treating me to it. And these lackluster experiences ensured I would never stray for long.

It is almost concerning that I am able to write longer pieces about bubble tea with an ease that does not come with many other topics. But I guess that shows you can really feel passionate about some things. I am eagerly waiting for the day I will be reunited with the few brands I would have points cards for. I used to have a Coco umbrella even! If they are ever opening applications for overseas ambassadors, I need to be first in line.

Summer is not the same this year. I hope it will soon be as I remember it.

Daily tidbits: Why not make things more complicated?

I have been in touch with customer service quite a lot these days. That is always a frightening thing, although I have had my fair share of better and worse experiences. However, in this case it was Chinese customer service, because I needed to arrange some things for my phone number.

There is something amazing about the way everything is so interconnected in China. When you have an issue, there is always a way to address it. You can chat with customer service or give them a call, basically 24/7. At the same time, it never ceases me to amaze me how complicated they can make things at the same time.

When I still lived in China, I moved to Shanghai and got a new phone. I needed a new simcard, a nano one instead of the mini I had. after calling my provider’s customer service, which is totally separate in Shanghai from Beijing and provides no way to be redirected, they told me that I needed to come back to Beijing for a new simcard. So just to get something with a little bit less plastic, I needed to travel more than 1.000 kilometers. Which I did and found ridiculous.

Now that I am in the Netherlands but still using my Chinese phone number for certain occasions, it’s a different issue. I had freezed my number, but was unable to easily recover it again due to forgetting my password. I again chatted with different officers at different times in the Chinese night but in the end I was only able to finalize the process by contacting a friend in Beijing and having her directly call them.

I am not sure if this is arranged in this way for a specific reason. Is it to ensure that the physical staff still has a role to play? Is it because they want take customer service difficulty to the next level? Is it because they are available 24/7 that all staff is so tired they cannot think of any customer-friendly alternatives? To be honest, I think it is just another way for us to remain grounded. That we remember we can do great things, and also make simple things impossible.

Daily tidbits: What makes this hurt my back?

Ever since working from home became common, a new game emerged for me to play. Basically, it was: what makes my back hurt today? To be honest, I think in normal life my posture is quite good. Probably because I am pretty short and thus always need to look up anyway. And in general office equipment tends to be of a higher quality than the chairs I sit on at home. At least for work purposes.

When lockdown began, I actually sat a lot on the ground or laid in my studio. Because space was limited and work scarce, which actually made my hips and sides hurt more than my back. But once I actually found a regular job and started regularly working from home, it was my back’s turn to let me know of its existence.

I resisted bringing the proper chair from the office for quite some months before I capitulated and actually brought the high-quality one home. However, with my currently limited digital nomad life (basically just travelling between 2 cities that are 45 kilometers apart) I sit on a lot of different chairs while working. And although there are definitely high-quality chairs around me, I cannot always hog them to myself.

So today I made the ultimate compromise. I think this trend was hip about 10 years ago when we started paying more attention to the health and well-being of employees. It was the time when we were making fun of al the ‘strange’ contraptions companies came up with. Standing desks, biking desks, back cushions, feet rests and exercise balls. Yes, there seems to have been a time when we thought everyone would be bouncing around in office and behind their desks. Needless to say, it did not happen. But I bounced behind my desk today. So that is me finally hopping onto one trend.

Daily tidbits: Hot tea hurts the tongue

Yes I drink tea scalding hot. Yes it burns my tongue. Yes that hurts. I started drinking increasingly hotter tea and beverages while in China. I remember the first few times I was travelling in China and leaving half a pot of hot tea or water whenever I left the restaurant or cafe. So I ventured on ones of the most ardous training, that of the tongue.

I do not think I have ever really burnt my tongue. My dad apparently split his tongue once when he was exerting too much effort, and my mom has a Frankenstein tongue. My tongue is pretty normal, except that is has undergone this secret training and now I can handle almost all hot beverages. So long as I do not spill anything on myself. Because that still hurts.

The training has not been easy and I have half-burned my tongues probably quite some times in the process. Even now it is not fool proof. There have been enough situations where I burnt my tongue. And then I could not see anything either because of the condense on my glasses. Double trouble.

It is quite satisfying to be able to down hot beverages quickly. I cannot handle any alcohol so no way to impress anyone on that front. However, tea cups can be the same size as spirit cups and they keep refilling your cup in China for both beverages (something I miss a lot for the tea). So you will see me sweating, drinking and running to the bathroom in a bar, just like everyone else.

Daily tidbits: Not sharing is caring

Today I remembered to finally eat my last orange. Right before I headed out the door for a precious meeting with another human being in real life, I opened my cabinet and put the orange in my sweater’s pouch. Even though I had told it to become orange, there was some green to it, but the texture said ‘eat me before it is too late’ so I brought it.

Oranges are not really my favorite kind of fruit, but I feel they are a bit more reliable in taste than apples. I cannot say how much disappointment I have had whenever buying apples and having a soft, mushy one instead of a crisp bite. I must say I did not have this problem in China, since they had a few kinds of apples that were bound to be crispy, so another thing to miss as I moved.

I tried to see if I could start the peel by using my non-existent nail, which failed as foreseen. So just as I was biting into the orange, my friend arrived. In that split second I thought, “I probably cannot offer him a piece anymore now”. And when we sat down and I was ready to take my first piece, I hesitated for a second before eating the whole thing myself.

Now I grew up in a situation where I was often hungry and not with people who had anything on them (or were even contemplating someone to get hungry). And I am now conditioned to share anything with friends, even if it is just a cookie, since almost all are so kind to do that with me. So I felt like a real, egoistic only child eating this fruit and not having offered the other one a share.

This made me think about the way we share food here and what I was used to doing in China. In China, food is everywhere, at anytime and most importantly widely shared. Sometimes I did not dare look at anything edible, lest I would be confronted with the question: “wanna have some?” Of course, this is a first-world problem, an issue I would love to have in my life again.

But for now, I think the current pandemic gives us a great excuse to not share food (as much) and to be a bit more egoistic. As long as we still care of course.