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.

Chinese instructions on staying safe and sound

A few weeks ago, our company had the ‘honor’ to receive a lecture from the local official organ about fire hazards and safety. My anarchistic side always resurfaces during these kinds of occasions. Nonetheless I happily complied to listen, if only to reach the necessary number of attendants.

My fire safety knowledge is limited to knowing you should not put oil out with water and a thick woolen blanket should provide some protection if wet enough. Encountering my neighbors burning something in the hallway during the Tombe Festival, I reckon their notion of safety is even lower.

So during these kinds of lectures, the beginning is always with big accidents that ideally happened in your own neighborhood, relatively recently. Of course that’s awful, but the human mind is a funny thing. I’d say the main thought that remains in our heads after watching or hearing these things is: “Well it will not happen to me though.”

And of course the lecture continued with showing very graphic depictions of burned bodies (slightly disrespectful to the victims I would add), for which I gladly let my glasses slide down so as not to see it. Most colleagues, especially those who have spouses, were on the edge of their chair. I can understand it of course, but let us face the hard truth: nothing is going to change.

Sure, the Chinese government reminds us constantly of everything, whenever they can. There is posters downstairs in my building depicting fires that happened recently and how to prevent it. Whenever you go watch a movie, there is a safety video on fire hazards played to ensure everyone is up to date.

It is the same as taking the plane and seeing those safety videos. Unless they make it fun, no one will pay attention. And incorporating that kind of fun in their messages is not something the Chinese government takes seriously.

A picture says more than 1.000 words

It is no secret that most Asians like to take photos. Like a lot. Like an awful lot. Of everything.

Personally, it’s not that I dislike taking pictures, but mainly a case of laziness. I mostly find things either not important enough to take photos of, or I would rather experience the thing with my own eyes. Very millennial-appropriate in a certain sense I guess.

Not so in China. Since I do a sport that is very visually attractive (aerial silks), many people’s first reason to do one of the moves is to take a picture. That is fine, honestly, if it gets you motivated to do it that is good. However, sometimes these people also try out more difficult tricks and poses just because they look good. Obviously not fine.

Equally annoying are people who never come to class, but take tons of photos the one time they come. A friend who dances at a studio sometimes complains of the girls who cannot dance very well, but are always in front taking photos of them ‘in action’, even blocking others.

Truth be told, this behavior is probably not unique to China. At the same time, just like watching videos on your phone without earphones, it seems a lot more common in China.

Chinese people are also pretty competitive, what does it mean to do sports but nobody knows or sees it? Plus, if you have got the right clothing and your body looks nice in the big mirror, that is an opportunity to good to it pass by.

So if you are fit and active, there is only one way to show it. Just as well, if you are out of breath because of the sports anyway.

The art of being inefficient

So there’s not many things I actively emphasize about being Dutch or Northern European, but direct communication and efficiency are. Having lived in China for about 4 years, I have experienced the differences and adapted many times.

Of course this is partly because ‘When in Rome do as the Romans do’. At the same time, there is also a sort of fatalistic mentality that even if you would try your hardest to change the process or way things go, it will not happen and make nobody any happier in the process either.

After my washing machine soap, I hoped I would be free of repairs for a while. Alas, I had tried to ignore the bubbles on the wall of my covered balcony, which slowly started to grow moldy. Once it seemed the wall would be able to move by itself any minute now, I caved and started the repair process.

Since I rent through an official agency, the process seemed to be relatively straightforward. Just choose which part of your home needed to get repaired through the app, take a few pictures, add some relevant comments, choose the convenient timing and then you’ll automatically be assigned a repairman or woman.

These processes do go very quickly in China, so after providing all the information in the morning, I already got contacted by a repair guy in a few hours. We agreed to him coming at a certain time in the afternoon and I minded my own business. When the time arrived that he was supposed to come, I did not really pay attention and decided to sit it out and see how long it would take. He was an hour late. Oh well, what can you do.

To those who remember my last series on repairing stuff in your house in China, it probably will not surprise you what happened next. A guy knocked on my door, looked at my wall, took some photos and told me he would inform someone else come again to repair. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Long story short, I had 2 more people coming (not on time as well of course) and taking photos again. After the third person not actually doing anything, I was just not very motivated to continue with the process. But, after that third person someone actually came to fix the wall, hallelujah!

The only thing was, after asking him about the leak in the roof, he said: “I’m not responsible for that. You’ll need to get on the roof, ask your account manager about the arrangement for that.” Another long story short, I asked my account manager, then the management of the complex, then the agency’s central customer service, and then another account manager again, just to get the same guy to now ‘be allowed’ to go on the roof to further fix things.

In other words, it was Chinese communication at its finest and most effective. Most importantly, it has been raining quite a lot the past few days and I have been eagerly eyeing my wall. It seems like I will be able to give the guy some more work pretty soon again.

Various exercises in self-control

In general, I view myself as a pretty disciplined person. I exercise regularly, am able to just take 1 candy out of a bag and tend to come on time. But I realize that especially in China, the exercises in self-control come in great numbers.

Summer is here, and surprisingly it is not even “just-let-me-die-already-hot”. I keep repeating this to every person I talk to, we definitely have a reverse climate change on this side of the globe now. Of course, summer preparations tend to call for self-discipline. Bikini bodies, tanning sessions and pool parties do not go in moderation, but the preparation for those do.

There do not tend to be a whole lot of bikinis and pool parties in the center of Shanghai. What there are a whole lot of in the city, are mosquitoes. And not only in the evening, like I was used to when younger, but all the time and everywhere.

At the office, at the gym, at cafes, restaurants and of course outside. Unless you constantly douse yourself in mosquito spray, you will get bitten. Add to that the fact that my blood is ‘sweet’ (to compensate for my sour personality no doubt) and I attract mosquitoes anywhere. Furthermore, I am also too lazy to want to heavily smell like citronella all the time, so I just get bitten. A lot.

There are definitely different kinds of mosquitoes or bugs buzzing around, because luckily most bites disappear in a few hours or 1 day. But that unfortunately does not lessen the fact that I itch a lot, in inconvenient places. My toes, my fingers, heels, shins, hips, neck, basically anywhere that you can think of gets bitten. Even with clothes on. Or in the rain.

Even if I would not bite my nails, which I still do from time to time, I would not have enough fingers and nails to continually scratch my whole body (and I could not do anything either during that time as well then). So this is my highest form of self-discipline that I employ: no scratching.

It sets me and my legs apart from the other Chinese who generally have very spotted legs because of all the mosquito bites they (presumably) scratch open. Yes, I accept disciples.

Why watching TV shows is tiring

So I was staying at a friend’s place for a week while visiting Beijing. She has her TV linked up with the Youku (local YouTube) app, which means she can stream anything that is on there on her TV.

My own TV mainly functions as a washing/clothing rack and card stand, so it was nice to actually watch something on it. I always aim or have the intention to watch more TV or TV shows, yes the stuff that all kids dream about, because listening more to Chinese people talking never hurts.

There is only 1 problem that I established early on: TV shows wear me out.

I remember watching TV shows when I was younger and getting increasingly frustrated and irritated by them as I watched them more regularly. The way that everything is drawn out, the staging of certain emotions and the second-hand embarrassment of some things that are being said. These points all play out the same when I watch a Chinese TV show.

Sure, I pick up some new words or neat way to say things. But the texts are equally overwrought, the acting as overdone and the cliches largely the same. Moreover, Chinese TV shows, especially those involving competition, always emphasize the humility of their participants. They have superhuman discipline, need to hammer down that they had a lot of help getting where they are now and how proud they are of being Chinese.

This is to say that for me, watching a TV show is almost equally unattractive as just regular studying. I remember being on exchange in China and once having the chance to be audience member to a, to be honest, quite boring TV program.

I almost fell asleep. Literally.

I never watched that show, obviously.

Please take my picture

I gladly tried to forget that this past weekend was International Children’s Day. On the one hand, it is because I am not a fan of children and kids. On the other hand, even though China is an aging society, somehow all these kids pop up out of nowhere during the weekends.

What amazes me a lot, is how many pictures are taken of kids. I know in the Netherlands, most kids, I think boys and girls almost equally but for different reasons, do not like to have photos taken. Boys often find it takes too long, they might make a weird face just to get it over with and continue playing. Girls can be shy or get uncomfortable and not want to look in the camera or just freeze.

Not in China. Of course, it helps that smartphones are ubiquitous, and the Chinese in general are more visually focused. The “Photo or it did not happen!” slogan really counts for them. Whether it is sports, food, art, travel or any other aspect of life, it is important to have it documented digitally.

Naturally most Asians are well-known for their peace signs in photos, with hearts also becoming more popular in recent years. It seems that the combination of fixed poses and high tolerance for visual recording leads to kids being very aware and willing to be photographed over here. I am always amazed when I see 4 or 5 year old kids (do not pin me on that number though, I cannot guess age of kids at all) striking a perfect pose whenever their parent decides it is a photo moment again.

Even if they need to take more than 5 pictures, the kids may start slumping a bit, but discipline often takes over so that the end result is appropriate. I also almost never see them very actively protesting or at a loss of what to do in front of the camera. Shows that it pays off with some things to start at an early age.