So please help me God

Okay, I am not religious, but a couple of days ago I had an experience which could have easily turned me to God.

I know I live in a bubble, most of us do. We hang out with people we like, who think like we do, because otherwise we would not be able to spend more than 1 hour in 1 room. But at the same time, I try to get a feeling what people are doing outside of my sphere. Oftentimes, it helps to keep me grounded and make me less pedantic. And sometimes I realize people I thought were a thing of the past, are actually still alive and well.

Basically, I live in a rural area and do a bit of circus both in my parents’ backyard as well as in another rural area right across the border in Belgium. So I drive there by car and last time my mom asked me to fill the tank on the way back. I am not a very experienced driver, but I can generally handle the car. Not that much this time.

I missed the first 2 tank stations on the way back, so decided to stop at the next one (third time’s the charm). Even though the previous 2 tank stations were in urban areas, something that is important to remember in my final choice.

So the tank station I did stop at was near a highway, unmanned, with no houses nearby. I parked the car, only to discover that the tank cap was on the other side. With the tank cap on the right side, I remembered I just had to push a button to open it. I pushed a button, got out to check the tank cap, it was still closed. Repeat about 3 times, before I realized I had opened the engine lid.

Having finally opened the tank cap, I filled it up with sweet fuel. Once it was done and all paid for, I got in, put the key in and wanted to turn it. I could not. I tried 10 more times, each time more desperate than the previous one. It did not budge. I got out, checked the engine lid and the tank cap, everything was as it should be. I was highly confused and at the verge of bursting out into tears.

Looking around, the closest house was approximately 20 minutes walking. There was a cafe-looking building, but it was obviously closed. I checked my phone, no credit anymore, so no possibility to either call or access the all-knowing internet.

I got out, walked around the building and discovered it actually housed some people. There was a small terrase with a fence, behind that I could see a sort of dining room with an open slide door and an older couple inside. It was already a bit late, around 22.00, but I still approached them, desperate for some help. I mumbled softly something like “Could you please help me…” while trying to leave the most unscary impression possible. Apparently it did not work.

The first thing the man did, was cross his arms in front of him. I saw the woman nodding her head. I thought I maybe did not see it very clearly, so I lingered, scratched my head and tried to look as innocent as possible. It had the opposite effect. In the end, the man stood up and closed the door. I stumbled back to the tank station to see if anyone had turned up. Nobody was there.

In a last act of desperation, I still went back to the house side of the building and tried to look as pleading as possible in the dark. I saw with my very own eyes, the man and then the woman slowly get up and walk out of the room.

I do not know how exactly I would act if someone randomly showed up at my door for help. I am not a saint or anything, I often decline to give people money if I feel it is not going to something worthwhile. At the same time, it baffled me that these people existed. That you can be so dedicated to not wanting to help or be involved in anything unknown.

In the end, I was luckily saved by 2 very friendly Belgians, who were also amazed at the fact that I still remembered 2 phone numbers by heart, and I was able to return home without much of a problem afterwards.

Home sweet home.

Taking a shot at my retirement hobbies

The past months were quiet, literally and figuratively. While looking for a new job and being in the second lockdown since the beginning of this year, I had a lot of free time and not many places to go to. So like all of the other, seemingly hypermotivated people, I took a shot at some new hobbies.

Yes, I went the full self-development route, doing some music (or impersonating a steamboat as my neighbors called it), trying to do some online courses (with motivation increasingly lacking) and following YT tutorials on things I had always wanted to do (super-basic photo editing skills, check). But what struck me in the end, was the fact that so many things I did required a laptop and looking at a screen constantly. Something I did for hours when I was still working and also during my lockdown in China.

So I wanted to do something else. I am not much of a handicraft person, beyond the occasional origami, and feel a lot of things you make end up just cluttering your house. I have a prime example in my family who does ceramics, sewing, jewelry, painting and drawing. Still, after doing a sort of deep clean of all my stuff (goodbye 2014 instant noodles), I felt I had a bit of room to add new things.

It ended up being macrame. The rope knitting stuff that I remember from my youth as being something the elderly had in abundance.

Truth be told, once I wanted to start on some projects with basic knots, I made an unfortunate discovery. 75% of what I saw being made, I really found ugly. The standard boho/hippie look that is not my jam at all. I am all about clean and graphic work, without fringes or beads.

Nonetheless, I found it quite easy to learn most knots and I made some plant hangers. For a fake plant, because I do not have any wish to grow any plants. And although my back hurt a couple of times because I was so bent over my project, it was nice to work on something tangible and use it as well.

So I am all set for my elderly life of leisure now. I just need to hang on for like 40 more years.

Film rewriting: Little Women

Things are opening up again, including movie theaters. And one thing I did miss in China, were the smaller places we have here where you can find the non-blockbusters. It is a bit ironic then that the first movie I watched here, was one of the more mainstream ones.

Hearing the title Little Women, it kind of reminded me of A Little Life by Hanya Yanigahara. I have not read both books, but they must be quite different after watching the first one’s adaptation. Little Women is a romantic setting, à la Pride and Prejudice or Wuthering Heights. A Little Life is more of a biopic including many different characters and their struggles, a focus on the realistic instead of the romantic.

So Little Women, then, has the following synopsis on imdb:

“Jo March reflects back and forth on her life, telling the beloved story of the March sisters – four young women, each determined to live life on her own terms.”

It feels similar to Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility in the setup with multiple sisters who all have quite different personalities. Although I pretty much bawled my eyes out during the second half and liked the movie in general, there were a few things I would have done differently.

  1. I expected to see a bit more evenly divided screen time. Of course it became clear early on that we would just be in Jo March’s head, and Amy March as a good second, but I hoped to learn a bit more about the other 2 sisters’ perspectives as well. Especially Meg March, who is shown having some grudges about the life she chose, but there is no real catharsis from the one argument she has with her husband, to her frolicking in the garden with her kids at the end. Let alone talking about the sickly sister Beth March, who mostly serves just to be taken care of instead of being a fully formed character.
  2. How did they manage to make this main love interest guy look so much like he does not belong in this era? He is cute, but his body language reminded me of a cool guy who just put on these clothes because someone told him too. Also, he is not even fleshed out that much. We see him bantering with his teacher, who marries Meg March, and hear through other characters that he does not have a very good relationship with his father, but none of it is really shown. This makes it even more difficult to look beyond his modern demeanor and see him as an actual Victorian gentleman.
  3. Jo March is played very well by Saoirse Ronan, but her arc is kind of… anti-climactic. Especially since during the movie’s title sequence, a statement is shown saying something like “my life has been tough enough, so I only wrote about frivolous things.” And I am not one to say that it is ‘not tough enough’ if you have to scrape by or lose a family member, but the problem is that you do not see a lot of moments of real despair, besides the main ‘climax’. Even though everyone is not thriving at the beginning, neither of them really have failed. Add to that the fact that you mainly see flashbacks of happy family moments, and all the tension created for the final romance, sort of feels undeserved.

This is not to say that I do not like the movie, I just think it is a bit too sweet for my taste. I really love Pride and Prejudice and liked Sense and Sensibility as well, so I certainly have a soft spot this genre. It just nagged me a bit while watching the movie that I was waiting for a punch, but only got soft pats.

N.B. I did not take into account the original novel (which I have not read) for these critique points.

It is all about them young’uns

Among all the changes and developments that happened recently, I could not imagine my 30th birthday would be really quiet and memorable at the same time. As it goes when you ‘hit a new milestone’ in life, a lot of people asked about my feelings. I like to think I must have at least defied expectations a little bit when I replied that I actually somewhat looked forward to it.

Especially in China, everyone looks a lot younger then they often are. I feel a lot of parents look way too young to be walking around with kids of their own. And it gets tricky when seeing older women to determine if they are a mother or grandmother already. Besides whitening, I think most people are very focused on staying youthful. Perhaps because of the polluted air, the fact that all photos (including official passport photos) get retouched or the ubiquity of plastic surgery commercials, there are many ways to be reminded of the fleetingness of your youth.

To be honest, when I see images of very old people (85 and over in my opinion) they do not seem really attractive or anything. At the same time, I imagine it must be nice to sort of leave all of the pressures of looks and appearances behind (provided you are not a celebrity).

Furthermore, looking at some of the other older people around me, especially now that I do not see that many people around my age due to quarantine anymore, I fully admire their peace with most things in life (except for the cleanliness of the place they live). For Chinese elderly, there is an added feat of general fitness that I also hope to keep up in my old age.

Having become 30, I already feel more comfortable in some ways with life and myself than the past 5 years. At the same time, though life passes really quickly (now especially), I feel I still have so many years to go (without too many real problems hopefully) before I will enter my ‘full retirement’. Well, for now I can already enjoy having that status for any future kids and teens I will meet. A good way to already get used to the idea at least.

Old-school communication methods

Once in a while, when birthdays come up or the holidays, I think to myself: I should really write some cards and letters. I toy with this thought for too long to send it before the right occasion and then let it simmer for a while. Then, I am suddenly hit by a wave of motivation and start writing letters, folding origami, making use of all the paper I had bought for this purpose. But then I need to find the addresses, go to the post office to actually send it and then wait in agony for happy messages from my friends to old news. And oftentimes, I will send it 3 months after the first time I wrote the card or letter, so I add an addendum.

All in all, it is quite clear I like the idea of writing letters and cards more than actually doing it. At the same time, I do really enjoy the process, and especially in China and Asian countries there is a plethora of cute cards, stickers and letter paper to choose from.

I remember that before I went to China, I looked for letter paper in the Netherlands. When I was younger and pen friends were still a thing, there was a lot to choose from. Not anymore in like 2014. I held onto the few pieces of paper I had like they were treasures.

Then I moved to China, traveled to Japan, Taiwan and South-Korea and was overwhelmed by the choices available. I stocked up enough origami paper to last me 10 years, spent hours in stationery stores picking and choosing paper, bought packages of cute cards to send out.

I am now slowly making my way to actually using up all that stuff I bought at a whim. Once I put my mind to it and sent it all out, it is quite fulfilling. Even writing the stuff and reading back what I wrote if I am adding a letter is kind of fun. And it is basically the only reason I have to write Chinese by hand.

So anyway, I probably would not thrive in the real analog era, but pretending to be a ‘real’ writer from time to time works out fine.

She still got it – cooking and baking again

No joke, I told most of my friends that my mother watched me with astonishment as I still managed to cook several (edible) dishes after not cooking regularly for almost 5 years.

That is not to say I severely dislike cooking and baking, but I just did not do a whole lot of it while in China. I think many can agree with the fact that food is almost too easy to get in most parts of Asia. Under most circumstances you can get it wherever you are at whatever time and in large quantities at a (relatively) low price.

Naturally, I made full use of that environment while I lived in China. I ate out more than I ordered online, but my kitchens were heavily unused. For the first 3 years in China, I can probably count the amount of times I cooked myself on 2 hands. Part was that I had a cat in Beijing who was a: curious and b: hairy so not an ideal environment. Although I had basically all the equipment I needed, it still was a lot less than I was used to in the Netherlands. All this resulted in gas fees that were less than 10 RMB (less than 2 euro) a year.

In Shanghai, I did cook for a few months more regularly. But that changed after I found out there were mice in my building and in my kitchen cabinets as well. Consequently, instead of being a fridge, this became my sealed-off cupboard for any food products that I could still have at home. Mainly instant noodles and snacks.

However, I not only have loads of time now, but also a fully equipped kitchen to my disposal. Additionally, I think the choice for ordering online where I am now is very limited. We only have a McDonalds and a few local restaurants. I have had enough Big Macs that that is not the first thing I am missing now.

So instead, I have been cooking and baking lots. I think we have about 3 kinds of pies in our freezer at any time now, I folded dumplings, wonton and spring rolls in the past weeks, as well as preparing dinner regularly or helping out. Although there is something to say for the convenience of not needing to cook yourself, I am rediscovering a certain joy in making something and directly getting the result. I am not aiming to make very complicated things, but it is fun to experiment a bit and make some things I have never made or thought about making before.

Since we cannot get any people over during these times, cooking more means eating more as well. Honestly, it is a win-win situation.

Losing your way around

A few weeks ago, when I was still allowed to walk around freely, I found myself in an unfamiliar city with some time to kill. I knew the fastest way to walk from my current spot to the train station, but decided against it since it was nice weather and I would not have anything to do at the train station anyway. So taking my time, I strolled through some typical Dutch neighborhoods and made a detour to the old city center as well, making sure not to stray too far from my goal. It worked out well.

I tend to do this quite often, but realized that the reason it went well, is because I did it in a relatively small city (the Netherlands is small after all). When I lived in Beijing and Shanghai, I sometimes did the same. I would be done with work or returning from my sports studio and wanting to make life a bit more exciting, decide to do a detour.

The good thing about biking, is that you can more easily go further distances, even if your route turns out to be a bit longer than expected. The bad thing about biking is that I tend to do it at high-speed, which means I need to cover more distance if I take a wrong turn.

And the other disadvantage of big Chinese cities, is that many spots tend to look very much alike. Those cute hutongs and charming alleys? Very nice to wander for a while, but once you decide you want to now go straight home, it may not be that straight. The big boulevards and ring roads? There are so many of them, and most of them are dotted with similarly huge shopping centers and government buildings. You only end up knowing if you went wrong, once you notice the name of a subway stop which you did not expect to see at all. Which is not be close to where you need to be at all.

So that is how I spent a lot of time in China, lost on a bike. It will probably continue once I move to a bigger city here again. Something else to look forward to I guess.

We are family~

So right now I am living the #familylife. Not that I have a husband and child of my own (even though all Chinese insisted I really needed to have one in the past few years) but I am back to basics. Living in with my parents again to be precise.

It’s special times and those mean special situations. Having moved back with my parents (right before I am turning 30) makes me slightly concerned, but at the same time it seems to be the perfect time to do so. A few days ago, my mom literally said: “You are now living the life you wanted to live when you were going to university.” I would have liked to stay with my parents longer when I was younger, but needed to move out for my studies. Guess I am able to catch up now.

The main thing about living with my parents, is that it is very different from how I know many Chinese arrange it. I cook myself (my mom being amazed all the time that I can still do it even with all those years of eating out), fold laundry, organize our pantries and I can even make money by doing some chores (throwback to 16-year old me).

As I have heard and seen from situations where my Chinese friends live together with their parents, it is the kind of situation that would drive me crazy. Parents who clean up after you, cook for you, fold your laundry, worry all the time about of for you and have their own private places.

I understand the ideas behind it, you are there for each other and want to make each other happy, but I am very glad that I can live together with my parents in our own way. We all have our own spot in the house, but these are interchangeable (my dad complained that his computer seat was too low all the time because I am sitting behind his desk) and we cooperate pretty nicely for the cleaning, cooking and other chores.

It is kind of like those great roommates that you see in tv series. They fully understand me, but we all have our own lives. I could join their hobbies (sports and chopping wood), ask them for advice and discuss how the world’s going down right now. Furthermore, they do have a fabulous house (if I may say so myself) and I do not pay any rent.

So if this is what it is going to be, I would almost rethink moving out. Almost.

Small things I miss about China

Having been in the Netherlands for a month now, there are many things I am already used to again. I also miss some big things quite a lot. Of course there is the food and snacks (#bubbleteaforlife), the subway convenience, and digital payments.

Living in a metropolis made me realize I actually am the city girl I pretend to be. Not that I am actually living fully in the middle of nowhere, but getting pretty close. So this is a list of small things I miss a lot and that you should enjoy if you are in China.

  1. Singing on the top of my lungs (even in heavily polluted weather) while biking and listening to my favorite songs.
  2. Shouting loudly in Dutch while biking because nobody understands.
  3. Hearing random shouting in my complex because the walls are paper-thin.
  4. Scanning QR codes.
  5. Everything being open 7 days a week.
  6. An excuse to not google something because I need to use a VPN.
  7. Less focus on food culture.
  8. Standard refills of hot water.
  9. More people on the streets.
  10. People being awake very early.
  11. Confusing people anymore with my local-foreigner status.
  12. Being loud (but not really for Chinese standards).
  13. People understanding the emotions of “AIYOOO” and “WASAI”
  14. Biking and walking around very randomly, regardless of traffic, traffic signs or traffic lights.

It is most certainly not going to end here, but I guess the good thing about returning is that I do appreciate stuff I have here a bit more. Especially with the current situation of course, I am very grateful and happy to be where I am in now.

At the same time, I will be more than happy to return to China (semi-)regularly and surely going to miss even more than the small things mentioned above. That is the thing about going places, you learn to appreciate and discover what you will miss. My journey has only just started.

Tell us everything

During these special times, it doesn’t feel like much is happening personally. Sure, there are quite some changes visible on the surface. There is a table set up at the front gate, which has been expanded by adding a tent just yesterday, for people to register and all deliveries to be put. This means that even if I stay inside all day, I will still have to walk down my 5 fleets of stairs to just get my food delivery. As if life was not hard enough already.

Another thing is that I have been getting quite a lot of calls. Since I am essentially not doing anything throughout the day, these calls are somewhat welcome if only to talk to someone for a few minutes. Basically, I think I have been called about 5 times in the past 3 days. The community committee, the police, my housing agency, etc. I am finally using up a more significant part of those 300 minutes per month included in my phone plan.

All conversations of course follow the same format. I get asked if I live where I do, if I have been out of the country, when, where to, and it ends with the wish that I will remain safe and without sickness.

I understand why they are doing it. At the same time, not even my own parents are this inquisitive. Truth be told, I have not really been going to that many clubs (the great town of Echt only having 1) and generally do not engage in too much stupidity.

The fact that everyone is being called, temperature checked, or just asked a bunch of questions otherwise is an admirable extent of control to exert. It is the kind of thing that is impressive at first, and then starts to creep you out. Having the Chinese government worry about you is generally the last thing you want. On the other hand, I guess I will for now treat them as my least favorite uncle and just put up with it.