Pushing and pulling, but no punches

This morning, I read an article about the bleak reality of gang violence in Latin-America. Yeah, the best way to start off your Sunday for sure.

But it did make me think, there is not that much fighting in China, normally. Of course, certain exceptions exist (a few months ago I experienced one myself) however, physical fighting is just not very common on the streets. Sure, people always tell me that Chinese sound like they are constantly angry at each other, but that is just the ‘beauty’ of Chinese and the fact that most people do not feel the need to be close to each other when communicating (instead preferring to shout from a distance so everyone can enjoy and listen in).

You will experience a lot of pushing and pulling in China though. Especially when you are in any line (subway, touristic spot, restaurant, etc.) or need to wait. This is however quite anonymous pushing and pulling, not especially geared toward you as a person, but more at the crowd in general.

The times I have seen people become upset and threaten to start a fight are actually quite comical. Mostly, it is just the voice that gets louder and possibly higher- or lower-pitched (depending on the gender and amount of anger), and a few cocky movements. Bystanders will gather and might pretend to pull the people away from each other, although there does not seem to be too much resistance to be honest. It all seems very reminiscent of the kinds of fights you might have in elementary school where giving off the image of a fight is more important than engaging in one.

And honestly, I do prefer this kind of fighting in the end. It is more petty, but also a lot less dangerous. Even being a fit and somewhat muscular girl myself, I do not like pulling any punches. It might be my Chinese blood after all.

In or out of touch with nature?

Today, the weather is great. Blue skies, sun shining, slight breeze, clouds drifting, clean air. About as perfect a day you can get in China, which means everyone is on the move of course. That is perfectly understandable, possible even desirable. There is limited room for outdoors activities on a daily basis and having other people in the park besides the elderly is a nice change of scenery.

The park is most probably the closest to nature that most Chinese get. Camping is not a very common way of traveling around, forests are mostly limited to national parks and most animals are still perceived as a main source of food.

In the Netherlands, there also has been increasing discussions if people, and children in particular, are not too out of touch with nature? Do we still understand milk does not come from a carton and that we only eat a small part of most vegetables?

On the one hand, what might help in China is that at least dead animals are quite common. With chicken feet, pig’s knuckles and ears, gutted fish, and intestines all being sold en plein public at most local markets, these images will not be very shocking and it helps making clear what you are eating.

At the same time, the Chinese are pretty ignorant to nature in most instances. Littering, pulling on trees to have flower petals or red leaves fall down on them, building bridges or elevators in the mountains without any regard for the surroundings, etc.

But, one thing that I do envy their ignorance for, is for most pests and insects. I do not think the day can ever come that I do not shriek and shirk away whenever seeing a cockroach. Having the kind of immunity that the Chinese and most other Asians inhabit towards cockroaches is something I thoroughly lack. Solid proof that nature provides some things you should nurture.

Stellar sales techniques

I am no sales person. To be honest, I did some minor sales-involved tasks during my (side) jobs and they all gave me anxiety. The fact that I do not have any talent for bluffing does not help either.

That does not mean I cannot recognize good from bad sales though. China, for all its lack of service does have a very well-developed sales culture. Up ’till a certain point.

Realtor employees try to hand you out flyers for any overpriced apartments they sell on any corner of the street. Enter a shopping mall and you are sure to be approached by a friendly lady who will fix your brows. Take the escalator at a subway station and there will be a (often not so) fit guy waiting to get you into the next gym as fast as possible.

Talking about this last one, a few weeks ago was actually the first time a friend and I took the guy up on his offer. Wanting to go to another gym which turned out to be closed, something that also happens often without any warning in China, we decided to see how free this free trial would be.

After a thorough workout (thanks friend!), we took a shower, picked up our stuff and handed in our locker keys. Not wanting to waste this grand opportunity, the girl behind the counter urged us to not leave yet. Being the nice people we are, we decided to wait it out and politely decline any sales pitch that would follow.

A sales guy came out, one of the not so fit ones, and he started directly throwing all kinds of things at us: “We have very new equipment. You should definitely get your membership here. Do you know our prices?” Decidedly, my friend and I pretended to be looking around and mentioned wanting to check out some other gym facilities and prices. “But do you know our prices?” The guy urged again. My friend and I shared a brief, suspicious glance and I said: “Yeah, we have looked on your website what it said.” Without any hesitation, the answer was, “No no, those prices are not correct. Do you know our real prices?”

I almost thought that the manager would come and throw him out immediately. I could imagine people in the Netherlands being like, “Why are spreading false information about your service? I do not do business with liars, get out of my face!” It is interesting how different people handle these things. I think in general Chinese sales people just tend to throw out everything and then see if something sticks. And apparently, this guy thought pricing would be the real money deal.

Welp, it was not. After hearing it was 7.000 RMB that did not raise our interest. It is tough being in sales.

Tourists with Chinese characteristics: golden groupies

It is spring and that only means 1 thing in China: flowers. Preferably cherry blossoms. Having spent my past weekend in one of the busiest places I could find to marvel at this wonder of nature, reminded me again of this kind of tourist.

Who?
Aunties and uncles, grannies and grandpas of around 45-50 and up. They almost exclusively travel together in large groups (25-35 people) because their children are busy (unless they belong to the fanatic families) and they can see highlights of 4 places in 4 days.

Where?
Anywhere that is only slightly famous is bound to be flooded by them. Headed by a guide with a flag, umbrella or originally decorated pole, they walk around unabashedly with their caps and snapping pictures of everything they see.

Why?
It is their time to shine! They probably worked hard and took care of everyone all their lives and finally can let it all go loose on a 5-day trip to Europe or by visiting famous spots all over China. They are still healthy, but also privileged (because older) and finally will have a chance to take pictures with shawls, stones and just all the beauty they can tolerate besides them.

Thoughts?
Auntie/granny: finally you are in the famous spot. First, I need a photo with the rock that says the attraction’s name. Then I need a photo with a shawl swaying in the wind. Then I am going to take this tree branch and pull it towards me so the flowers prettily frame my face. Next, I need to push to the front so I can get a photo next to the lake. I know I need to put my one leg before the other. Or my hand on my shoulder. Or both. It is so convenient to have a group guide me to all the important places I need to see.

Uncle/grandpa: okay, now that we are here I will take a photo of my wife with the rock. And then with a shawl. And then with the flowers. And at the lake. So glad she will do all the pushing and pulling for the spot. Next, we will take a picture together at the park. Making memories is very important. When I return to the Sunday park gatherings, we can show off all the places we have been. And no need to drive or look up anything ourselves. It is great to see so many attractions in such a short time.

My thoughts?
Group travelers rank medium to high on my irritation/frustration scale. The guide always blares out information that nobody pays attention to, even though they all have their ears plugged. This means when they step on your foot or push their elbow in your stomach, they also do not hear you gasping. Furthermore, their age, especially the 65+ ones, means it is socially unacceptable to push them back. They take full advantage of their ‘elderly privileges’ to push to the front or take up all the seats. They pull and push at the scenery to make it fit their photos and talk so loud that even I need to put in effort to communicate. But mostly, it is just that there are so many of them. It is the moment you realize that China is an aging society.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/zongo/33133416758

Film rewriting: Battle Angel Alita

Comics are sort of the new favorite source for films these days. Of course we have Marvel and DC, but also manga (and anime) have served as inspirations in the past years. With mixed results to say the least.

On the other hand, it seems that production values and budgets increase as well, hopefully leading to better quality films (in any sense of the word). This all leads me to the newest addition in this genre, Battle Angel Alita.

This is actually the first manga-based film, where I actually read the manga. It was about 10 years ago, so not too fresh in my mind but I remember enjoying it quite a lot. The basic premise of the movie is as follows:

“A brilliant scientist finds a broken android in the scrapyard. He rebuilds her and discovers she has a strong appetite for battle and sports (motorball). While (re)discovering herself, she becomes part of a competition to rise above others and literally above the city to the promised land.”

Honestly, the story line is quite straightforward so here are a few things I propose to make it a little bit more interesting.

  1. Can we have more shots of sports training? Motorball is like this intense, extreme competition where people, androids and robots literally completely rebuild themselves and lose their lives. Yet, we only get a mock practice game and Alita’s first real game before we are told at the end that she rose to the top in a few months of beating everyone. Where are the photos of those moments?
  2. Could we get a little more background information as to why certain people like or do not like Alita? The best friend of her main love interest (more on that in my next point) just does not like Alita, for no particular reason than that she beat him at the first game where he cheated, but keeps hanging around and going to places. And then in the end, he still dies for his friend even though he just insulted him of becoming weak because of her. That is just not how friendship works.
  3. I like Disney and hot guys as much as the next person, but it just does not match in a gritty, industrial and serious environment. Please throw the scene where he wakes up without a shirt out of the window immediately. Please do not throw in a cheesy quote such as: “You are the most human person I know”, when it is literally directed to an android. Please do not have the guy thanking the girl for changing his world as he falls to his death. And if possible, just find a less standard hot guy type. They just look too clean, no matter how dirty their environment is.

Apparently, this is only the first film in what is to become a series. As a stand-alone film, it is fine. It does the story enough justice, but could certainly improve in the next films. In any case, at least this was not the next Dragonball disaster.

Experiencing Chinese communication and family feuds

Fighting happens in the tightest families. I am blessed with families on both sides where this is limited, but that is often not the case for most Chinese. In general, life itself provides plenty of opportunities for things to go wrong, most importantly for the Chinese (and pretty much everyone else): money, work, partner, and kids.

Now, a while back I was on a short trip with a friend of mine (also a foreigner) and indirectly experienced one of the most frightening fights ever. She has described everything in more detail on her terrific blog, go read that as well!

Let me quickly recap: we stayed at an empty AirBnB hotel. The host was the male part of a couple and since it was Chinese New Year some extended family (grandmother, uncle (?), aunt (?)) was present. After a day spent outside, my friend and I returned in the evening and were warmly invited to join a big dinner table, sing karaoke and show off some dancing moves. We were included in video footage to non-present sons and daughters, sang some modern classics and had a great time. But after a while we got tired, the karaoke machine started sputtering and people simply disappeared. So we also went upstairs to sleep, or so was the plan.

However, after having read a bit and trying to sleep, I heard noises downstairs in the restaurant area. Slowly but surely the noises became louder and more distinct. There were 2 persons, most certainly our host couple, screaming things to each other. I could hear other voices trying to hush, but they kept becoming louder. Repeatedly, I heard stuff being thrown on the ground and shattering.

After there was enough thrown around downstairs, I heard footsteps on the stairs to the hallway that was connected to our hotel room. I took a quick peek out the window to see the situation below. It was a mess, with broken glass on the floor and table, mixed with food and a box of chopsticks thrown around.

My heartbeat was so loud I almost thought the people outside must be able to hear it. Instead, I could now hear their insults clearly. The woman screamed: “Fuck your mother! She still owns me 1 million RMB!” The man roared: “Oh please, stop with that and do not dare to say another word about her! This is already long resolved!”

As I mentioned, I am not at all ‘experienced’ in family feuds, and this seemed a particularly feisty one. The insults and accusations were repeated many times. It was definitely not the first time this happened.

To be honest, I was sort of ‘lucky’ to become part of the story. I was also lucky to not be in the same space as the fight since there seemed to be some intense physical contact. At the same time, during the fight it felt like a very tense moment. Since the walls were very thin, and people were thrashing about, it felt like every moment they could stumble in our room. I sat as still as I possibly could, trying to be even more invisible than I arguably already was.

This occasion was certainly my first time hearing pretty much Chinese strangers discuss intimate things so loudly and hotly. But my friend later told me that a previous CNY celebration she experienced also ended in a big family fight. And to be honest, around Christmas do we not see the all-too familiar topic of how to prevent the Christmas atmosphere from being ruined pop up everywhere as well?

So it seems that big occasions lend themselves good to big fights in any place or culture. What was actually the most surprising about this whole thing, is that my friend slept through all of it. When I asked her later if she had heard anything earlier she said: “Yeah the fireworks right?” Truth be told, you do not hear them that often in China I guess.

Tourists with Chinese characteristics: fanatic families

For the past month I have been travelling through South- and Southeast Asia. Especially around Chinese New Year there are many Chinese people going abroad as well. On the road I saw many different kinds of Chinese tourists. These impressions include a few of the different types.

Who?
A mom, a dad, 1 or 2 kids (byebye one child policy) and often some extended family members like grandparents.

Where?
Most families obviously have a limited program. Chinese families often even more so since they focus on the main attractions.

Why?
This is probably the beginning of family life and they are just settling in. With the kids still being small they get in for free at most spots. Everyone can relax a little bit, see some different things and meet new people.

Their thoughts?
Mom: a combination of tired, worried and excited. One of the few holidays need to be spent happily with family. But it is hot, and there is so much to take care of. Luckily dad carries most of the snacks and drinks. Are the kids hungry? Are they not getting too tanned? Where is dad anyway? Will I be able to buy all the souvenirs I promised my co-workers to bring back? This bird is so pretty, I really need to take a photo of this. Our kids should really learn more about nature now that they have the chance. Which sightseeing spots have we not covered yet?

Dad: this is not entirely how I pictured life with a kid. A heavy photo camera dangles on my belly, which is also starting to accumulate some ‘baby fat’. God is it hot here. Wiping my forehead while looking for some shade. This garden is really nice and the kids are playing outside. Sitting down this suddenly feels eerily similar to any other time I go out with mom. Waiting, looking and obeying. Mom motions you to take photos of something. What will be for dinner tonight?

Kid(s): so many different things! I can jump from the tree to the stairs. I want to carve out my name in this tree! And in the stairs! And in the temple! Where is dad? I want food. Mom is so annoying taking her time. When are we going home?

Grandparent(s): I am getting too old for this. But it is really nice to see the kids play. Do they drink enough though? I can tell all my friends in the park once I return that my grandchildren already went abroad.

My thoughts?
Families rank about medium on my irritation/frustration scale. Of course it depends on the age of the kids. Babies are terrible when they cry or excrete bodily fluids. When they talk and walk, kids often do too much of both. Grandparents tend to walk too slow and skip lines since they can often get away with it. Moms often take pictures of everything all the time. Dads mostly just look sad. But for the average backpacker, Chinese families are quite avoidable. Also, it looks quite exhausting to be in a different country with a group that seems to have mixed goals. It really turns fun into a verb.

Nostalgia is a powerful thing

It is almost time for the new year to start (again, more on that in my post of last last year). And this year, I am returning to Beijing where I lived for almost 3 years. Planning stuff with friends to do there is of course the perfect moment to think back on all those good times.

I actually do remember quite well that I was quite annoyed with Beijing when I left. It was way too noisy, the people rude, the air polluted, the food greasy, the temperatures too high or too low and the city all in all just did not attract me that much anymore.

Fast forward to having stayed in Shanghai for only a little over 6 months, and I am already telling everyone that I like Beijing more. Its noise and rude people seem eccentric now, the polluted air a ‘minor inconvenience’, the food flavorful and the temperatures are only a bit better in winter and worse in summer where I am now.

What is worse, this does not change when I actually return to Beijing. Everything seems nicer in a smaller time frame. Even when I am sad that things have disappeared, as they always do, the joy of recognition is much stronger. Oh, and chaotic traffic is the best. Not getting any fines when cycling as well. Not having to break out in cold sweat whenever I ignore a red traffic light, afraid a cop will suddenly turn up behind me is also pretty relaxed.

So I will be enjoying my new year in the best and worst place in China I know. I will give Shanghai a chance the rest of the year.

Sound the fire alarm

Having just watched a film in a cinema today, made me realize a thing I already knew before. The world is filled with hypocrisy.

In this case, I am referring to the fire safety clips they always show in Chinese cinemas before the actual film. It might be a strong and trustworthy fireman, an animated helpful robot or your average guy turned fire superhero, all of them urge you what to do in case of a fire. It is just as rote as most of the flight safety reminders when taking an airplane.

Of course, in almost all other cases there is much less, hardly or even no attention paid to fire safety. I remember when I went to China for the first time more than 15 years ago and eating in a hotpot restaurant. These were the times when the soup was still being heated by gas bottles whose tubes basically crossed the entire restaurant floor. And of course there were enough open fires with people happily smoking inside. Nonetheless, we lived to now tell on this tale luckily.

Another instance that comes to mind is in my own apartment building. Living in one these old, traditional 6-story flats already means that fire safety norms are non-existent. There are no emergency exits and stairs, and I doubt there are even smoke detectors installed.

Actually, I am quite positive there are none, because I saw my neighbors burning some money in the hallway a few days ago. Burning money in itself is not that strange, most Chinese do it when someone passes away or for other ceremonial purposes. However, it was quite windy and there was a cloth hanging over the door which seemed to come awfully close to catching on fire by the flames below it.

So naturally, I just headed out quickly and prayed nothing would catch on fire. I do not know if the burning of the money helped with that, but so far everything is still standing.

Animated Animals: It is the sound of the underground

You walk to a subway entrance and look around. People silently go in and out, some bumping into you silently or with little more than a grunt. You look around and suddenly see a bird hopping around. It hops to the elevator, seemingly waiting for someone to open it. As inconspicuous as possible you walk to the elevator and press the button. The bird and you enter.

Once inside you cannot contain your curiosity. “Excuse me, where are you going?” The bird cocks its head at you. It spreads its wings, is that how they point at stuff? “Today is the market.” As if that should clear up everything. You are just about to ask your next question when the doors open. The bird quickly and silently flies into the subway corridor.

You try to follow it while trying not to be too obvious that you are following something. The bird flies around a corner, past the security off to where the subway arrives. You quickly go through security, swipe your card and practically run downstairs. On the platform, you vaguely spot something at the far end.

The bird is in front of a door on which it knocks once with its beak. Without a sound it opens slightly, allowing the bird to hop in and you wriggle you way through as well. “Hi Mel, how are you doing?.” You suddenly hear the bird say. You look down and see a cord is attached to the door handle which is held by a mole. He looks at you with his blind eyes, slowly nodding for you two to continue.

You are in a kind of janitor room with cleaning supplies all around you. “It will be a bit of a walk, but you can grab something to eat at the market.” The bird says ahead of you. It flies through another door at the end of the room and you follow it into a dark tunnel. The dirt tunnel loops around and you can hear the subway passing far away at regular intervals. Although you seem far underground, the temperature is actually pretty warm and luckily there are no sidetracks.

Suddenly you hear sounds. Voices, sizzling, singing, music, the kinds of sounds you hear on squares throughout China. Within a few steps, the tunnel opens wide and reveals a square. One full of mainly animals, a few humans, and a lot of activities. There are cats and foxes playing mahjong, pigs and goats stuffing themselves at food stalls, turtles and fish lounging in a pond, peacocks and magpies are dancing in formations and there even seems to be some matchmaking going on between dogs looking for their loyal partners. This is a place that merits some further discovery.