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.

Waiting for a rainy day

Rain brings out something fascinating. Suddenly, the streets are filled with even more colors than usual, everyone has some sort of protection which ranges from the practical, umbrellas, to the ridiculous, plastic shoe covers.

It rains a lot in Shanghai. I am sort of used to a lot of rain from living in the Netherlands, but that does not make it any more fun most of the time. However, some things make the situation different here.

I do not really bike with an umbrella here, mostly because it is a lot busier and chaotic on the roads. The biking skills of the Chinese are quite limited, combined with wind (I have a friend who cannot even hold an umbrella against the wind when walking. You know who you are) does not make for very favorable circumstances to bike with an umbrella in.

Moreover, rain ponchos are very popular here. Ranging from plainly colored, hip and with patterns to the cheapest plastic ones which make you look like an ad hoc performance art project.

But the rain poncho is not the only fashionable item that became a business project for rainy days, shoes and boots are highly diverse here as well. It ranges from the lower, watershoe-like model that reminds me of my youth, to heeled short booths in all colors of the rainbow, normal height rain boots and knee-high horseriding-like ones. And the most recent incarnation seems to be plastic shoe covers which should still ‘show off your impeccable sense of fashion’.

So rainy days make for some of the most fashionable ones over here. Such diversity does make those days a bit better.

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.

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.