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.

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.

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!

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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!

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More small things I miss about China

Nostalgia only gets worse the further you get from when things took place. Granted, it has only been half a year since I moved back to the Netherlands. It is probably a mix of being afraid I am stuck somewhere I tried to escape and being asked about China a lot (I am an expert after all).

I am also again in a bigger city which makes me probably see the differences a lot sharper. So here is some other stuff I noticed I am missing.

  1. Feeling no remorse about ignoring people on the street who want to sell me something.
  2. Blending in with the crowd.
  3. Mobile payments being quick and easy.
  4. Big shopping malls with food courts.
  5. Being high and having a view of a sprawling city.
  6. Mountains.
  7. Parks with older people exercising and being way too good at tai chi, wushu or stretching.
  8. Chinese chess, mahjong or playing cards on the street.
  9. The variety of vehicles on the road.
  10. Zooming past people biking as fast as you can walk.
  11. Asking for something to get repaired and having someone come over the next day (even though it probably will not really help).
  12. Stores being open 7 days a week until 22.00 in the evening.
  13. Going to the newest restaurant because new stuff opens every month.

Conveniently, this is also a great way to remind myself of all the things I will be able to look forward to once I have a chance to go again. On the other hand, there were many things infuriating and frustrating about life in China.

Life in your own country just does not seem really exciting somehow. But I know very well that I am also very spoiled. Luckily, the good thing about having lived abroad for a while is being able to deal with spoiled people. Even if it is just yourself.

I remember that wanting to tell people the expat life has its glamorous moments, but in the end local life is largely the same anywhere. Something I should also tell myself now.

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.

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.

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.