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.

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.

It is not the most wonderful time of the year

The holiday season has arrived. Christmas trees are all up, Christmas hats are on heads and ginger is in all foods. Not to put a damper on the whole atmosphere, but these are not the most fun times to be in China.

There are many holidays in China, mostly based on the moon calendar. They also often involve gods, family and almost always food. But Christmas and New Year’s are not included among those traditionally. That means the Chinese have a different perception of this time of year than most Western countries.

Discounts, shopping and food. Those are the most important ingredients for Christmas over here. It is that time of year when all those faded decorations that are there all year long suddenly make sense. The time when all employees are obliged to wear a Christmas accessory on their uniforms, which makes their poor service only stand out even more.

To make matters worse, for many students the exam season is often around Christmas. I remember studying here in 2012 and having the joy of getting delicious food pictures sent by my family while making exams. Although there is of course no shortage of delicious food in this part of the world.

All in all, December is already a bit depressing and the commercial and artificial atmosphere do not make it better. To cap it off, New Year’s is always a disappointment since no one cares at all. Oh well, in any case we get a second new year in February to catch up on all the festivities.

Sweeping the nation

Fall has arrived in Shanghai. Or rather, it has been below 20 degrees the past few weeks, a couple of times under 10 and generally around 15. Most importantly, the weather has turned the leaves a different color. Preferably yellow, but mostly brown.

I just did a search to make sure I had not written about this yet. Leaves are a big deal in China, and larger parts of Asia (and according to an American I met, apparently also in some Western places). Meaning in this case that it is important enough to generate its own terms. Looking at them in this case. I remember when learning the words “looking at red leaves” in Chinese, everyone in class was quite giggly about it. Is this something we have to learn? Is this actually an activity people say they are going to do during the weekend?

Well, yes it turns out to be that way. Although, to be fair I do not think I have ever heard anyone actually say they are going to ‘look at red leaves’ over the weekend. However, there is a “looking at red leaves season” and there are certainly “looking at red leaves places”.

As I read quite recently and fittingly in a column last week, some things are only worth it for the pictures. That is certainly the case with these leaves. Although fall might be a season reminiscent of melancholy and chestnuts the right leaves make for a lasting impression. I think that actually the only time I have Chinese actively sitting on the ground or encouraging one and another to do so, is below yellow-leaved Ginko trees, even going so far as to picking them up the ground and throwing them in the air.

While the general public goes crazy for the right-colored leaves, many others do not have such luck. This is also the season where all the not-pretty-enough-leaves are being swept up by the countless people sweeping the streets (hidden unemployment very much). These are the times when it seems that non-biological material only gets swept up if it is in a huge pile of leaves. What would they do with all the leaves they collect? Perhaps they do organize special “looking at leaves events” for these experts. Who knows, it might even make road cleaner become a much more wanted job.

Hidden unemployment in plain sight

So, there are a lot of things you learn in high school that you never use afterwards. For geography, which was one of my weak subjects, this might actually count a bit less. It is quite useful to know about Pangea and why Dutch soil is weak and why exactly Amsterdam is built on stilts.

But in daily life, I do not think or wonder too much about these things. Something that is very relevant though, is the concept of hidden unemployment. I have already mentioned and experienced enough that efficiency is not held up to the highest standards in my country (watch my washing machine saga unfold and be surprised). This is because with all these people around, we need to give them something to do. Even though it makes no sense or could be done better, faster, stronger by a machine.

I am putting aside the tedious factory work that is still making a living for many people around here. But let us take a look at the slightly less depressing examples of hidden unemployment you encounter on a daily basis here.

1. Parking meters: I do not think I have ever actually seen a parking meter in China. For parking garages, the West of course also still uses human labor as well. You could argue that having people do this work on the streets, provides some slight benefits. They can yell at you to possibly make parking your car easier (or not), perhaps you can bargain for a slightly lower price (probably against the rules) and they can keep an eye out for your car (if they are not sleeping or talking or otherwise not paying attention). Another thing that makes it almost nostalgic to encounter these parking fee people is that you often can only pay cash. Perhaps that is their most important function, preserving a link to the past.

2. Security guards: Sure, the soldiers outside the embassy gates look slightly menacing, those probably would serve some kind of purpose in any event. But with all the security cameras in this country (apparently some 20 million throughout the country) you might think hiring some extra people to make security extra inefficient is unnecessary. Of course you would be wrong. The most fun parts of my day are sometimes walking into building where I am clearly not supposed to be (I explain this technique in more detail here) past a sleeping, talking or otherwise clearly not paying attention security guy and walking right out past him within 10 minutes. But perhaps, they are meant to serve as a secretly rebellious example. That as a security guard, you can be on duty, and probably being filmed as well, without actually doing it. Or even more so, with doing the opposite.

3. Cleaners: It is amazing how much there is being cleaned in this country. Not necessarily with the goal of it actually becoming clean, but merely the act. On the streets there are sweepers on every corner with just a broom and dustpan, then you have the slgihtly cooler sweepers who have their own little garbage trucks and you also have the people in those automated street sweepers. And the streets are also being sprayed once in a while. You have people sweeping streets with dry mops, with water machines to clean the pavement, dusting of handle bars and fences. The end result is a cleaner street than you would expect, but not an environment as clean as you would hope. This might be because sweeping up leaves is not actually cleaning up anything. Or because people keep throwing trash in places that are not trashbins. Or because almost half of the cleaners seem to be 50/60/70+ years old.

In the end, we can argue how much use any of our jobs have. In this sense, China delivers a healthy reminder daily that most of us do not really matter that much. A message, that incidentally fits the Chinese dream quite well.

Well, it is only the rule so…

I sometimes think that the expression “Rules are meant to be broken” comes from China. Even though there are many ways in which people listen or accept things at face value, there is certainly a lot of room for opposition as well.

Of course, this manifests in somewhat negative ways as well. Going off the beaten path in the mountains (although mother nature put this sign here urging you not to), shaking the trees for flowers or red leaves (ignoring another sign that says trees have feelings too) or simply squatting on the toilet seat (how do you do that anyway)?

But it also means that there is in a certain way more room for exploration. For example, if you are looking for a place and you are not sure if it is in this building, you can almost always enter it. It does not matter if the guard is awake (although oftentimes they are sleeping) they almost never ask questions. Once you are inside and realize within 5 minutes that you are not at the right place, nobody will even blink twice at you coming out again almost immediately.

Once you have mastered that stage, you can move on to the next: making your own rules. Everyone constantly is in a certain way just doing their own thing. Wearing whatever they want, setting up their street stall wherever they can, getting on the bus in the middle of an intersection or singing along very loudly on their bikes. It is almost mindful.

After that stage, there is only a final one left: blatantly ignoring the rules. It helps if you do not understand or can act as if you do not understand people talking to you. I once stopped sort of half-way on an intersection with a friend and pretended to not understand the traffic guy yelling at me to stand back. He gave up, muttering something about me being Thai. Or an alternative is directly talking to them in your own language and catching them off-guard that way. I have only done it once, but it is definitely one of my greatest achievements this year.

Oh, and it also works great to avoid agressive advertisers or people asking you the way. In general, it is a great way to not make any friends.