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 them?
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!

Learn more

Just wait and see, and then I did not

A funny little thing as I grow older, is that my concept of time feels somewhat warped. Either things are going really slow or really fast, there seems to be no inbetween anymore. I either feel like I am 11 or 88. Becoming 30 is weird.

Of course when you are not 30, right up until you are 29 or so, it feels very far away. And most people around me liked to sum up all the things I for sure would do, change or become before or once I hit that milestone. It is now becoming 50, but that is way too far ahead for now. So I thought it would be a good moment to take stock and see if these predictions were actually true or not.

  1. Having a lot of stuff: not true

    Up ’till I moved to China 5 years ago, I loved having stuff. Almost half of it was with my parents, because I did not feel like moving it around all the time, and the other half I mostly used. I also tended to buy quite some physical things still, mainly books. Which are great to read, but also pretty heavy to carry. Then I moved 4 times in the last 5 years, and my view changed. I started to question this whole idea of wanting or needing to have stuff, and managed to cut down on a lot of it. Being back in the Netherlands, having almost everything in 1 spot now and knowing what I have is very satisfying. I thought things would just pile up as I got older, but it turned out to be a choice, not a natural course of life.

  2. Not fitting in my clothes anymore: (mostly) not true

    I used to consume a lot of food, and I still do, especially compared to most Dutch people. When I was younger, I combined this with a fast metabolism, half-hearted attempts at sports and generally convincing myself I was okay with not being very thin. Fast forward to 2019 and I started doing aerial silks fanatically. Not only is it the first sport in years that I actually enjoy, but it is also a pretty good way to ensure I am not going to grow out of my clothes anytime soon. Only perhaps in shoulder width, but my belly is flatter than it was 5 years ago. Also, now owning multiple pairs of yoga pants will also help me fitting in my clothes for the next 10 years.

  3. Getting children: not true

    I have never really liked children and it is largely mutual. I try to look menacing to any kid that comes within 1.5 meters reach. When I was still young, around 12 or something, my mom once joked that there could be babies falling from the skies. I told her mortified that I would never go out again if that happened. Many people told me I would change my mind once I got older. I have not yet and I do not think it will happen. Especially now I have the age where more people around me get babies and I see more of them. Babies are not cute, they cannot do anything themselves and they cannot communicate anything clearly. I would much rather have a cat in that case. Which I coincidentally do.

  4. Stop crying: not true

    How I wish this one would be true. I do not bruise easily, but I cry really easily. I think for the longest time I held out hopes that I would grow out of it and when I was younger I had the perception that adults never or only rarely cried. Perhaps it would only happen around the times that my hormones were whack and I could blame my period. Alas, it did not work and it is probably the reason I drink 6 liters of tea every day. I need to keep myself hydrated so I am ready whenever I need to be.

  5. Reading the paper daily: true

    With one of my best friends I have the running jokes that everything I know or hear about I get from the newspaper. It is true about 90% of the time. I used to be very ignorant about the news and everything happening in the world, probably like more teenagers, but it all changed in my second year of university. I took some journalism courses and learned to understand the importance of knowing what is happening around you. Further than your parents’ backyard. I now think time spent reading the news is time well-spent. I will become one of those elderly people who will complain about all the bad things happening and how it was better in my days. I am earnestly practicing for it.

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.

The 8 different stages of moving

So this has been the sixth time I moved. There were some special circumstances, like the extreme heat during the actual move (not advised to do these activities when it is 36 degrees), but otherwise it was business as usual.

Phase 1: Fantasies about possible futures

It all starts with a dream. Either out of necessity or free will, you imagine a new future. You will be in a different place, with your own stuff. You look on different websites and imagine your own furniture and books on the shelves.

Anything is possible and you just saturate yourself with looking at as many options as possible. Is it a new apartment in that hip neighborhood which would mean you have to live on bread and water all the time? Taking a peek can never hurt. Is it an attic room shared in a house that already looks quite filthy on the pictures but for a steal? Think how much money you could save and spend on other things that are not rent!

Eventually, you have exhausted all possible living conditions and move on to the next stage.

Phase 2: Concerns about possible futures

It is now becoming real, your deadline when you have to move out is getting closer but you have not found yet. You already think about the insanely early wake up times you will have to commit to if you do not move out. You think about all the parties you will miss because you need to catch the last train.

The truth is that you simply have the same price and quality ratio as pretty much everyone else. And you start to get to the point where everything goes, thus hypothetically perpetuating the problem. I can live on water and bread for 6 months. I can just move somewhere out of the city center, in the nearby village where I am just surrounded by cows. I can handle 15 roommates and some houseparties and alcohol and just go to my parents if I need some quiet.

Luckily, before you actually throw away all your carefully planned budgeting and furniture, the next phase comes along.

Phase 3: Finding the holy grail

There is something like a God! Or rather, that is what you would almost believe once salvation arrives. You win the housing lottery! The people who interviewed different tenants for all the rooms liked you best! You find a beautiful apartment to share with friends!

In any case, you can bask in the glory that your new home is and start planning for the next stage with family and friends.

Phase 4: How much stuff does a human need

You have found the place! Now you need to fill it, with stuff. Of course there are necessary pieces like bed, table, chairs and wardrobe. But why not a designer lamp? Or a red carpet? Or an ergonomic desk chair?

There is a lot of fun in walking around in the IKEA or other furniture stores. How would this desk fit? Oh, that is a nice duvet cover! Wow, that is such a smart way to create more space! Which color would be better for this chair?

It is all good fun until you are about halfway through the shop and suddenly realize how much stuff you have and think you need. Why is that the case?

To be honest, you can shed more stuff once you move more often, but we have not reached the peak yet.

Phase 5: The not-so fun stuff to do

You found your dream home, but the walls are not that white. The window sill is pretty dirty, not to talk about the kitchen. In short, you need to work on that.

Painting is tiring. It is dirty work, although rewarding in the long term. Once that is done, your parents may already be doing another part of the house, whether it is your own or shared. No dirty stove or cupboard is safe from a parent with cleaning supplies.

And suddenly it is done and you can see how all your hard work paid of. Those freshly painted walls, the clean cupboards and new floor. So then the real fun can begin.

Phase 6: Moving all the stuff you thought you needed

This is it. There is a truck, van or trailer ready for you to move your stuff in or out of. Your parents (hopefully) are nice and healthy enough to help you. Some friends may jump in (especially those #gymfriends) and you will probably treat them to dinner or something nice.

You get up early enough and suddenly realize everything needs to be moved into the vehicle first, then out and then up (somehow you always live upstairs) again. Things scrape and almost fall before everything is bound tight, on its way to their new home.

Once you are at the spot, it turns out you cannot enter the street and need to first unload and then carry. Or the stairs are more narrow than you thought and you cannot get everything upstairs in one piece. Or 6 flights of stairs are simply more tiring when carrying a bed.

But all things must come to an end and there will be a point when there are no more heavy things to get upstairs and the next stage arrives.

Phase 7: Where does all this go?

You bought all that stuff because you needed it. Perhaps you even created an online version of your room to figure out what would go where. And now it needs to fit somewhere in the space you and your stuff will occupy. It is easier for the big things to find their spots. But what about the little sculptures you got from your grandmother? How about all your study supplies, if they occupy more than the original shelves you accounted for? Did you always have that many clothes?

Arranging your room is a process of creating chaos and then trying to contain it all. You are willing a foreign space to become your own. And at the end, it mostly works.

Phase 8: You did it!

You are done! For now at least. Having your own space requires maintenance, cleaning and organization. Perhaps you try out a new layout after 6 months. You may need an extra cupboard for stuff you amass. Or you jump on the hype train and try out minimalism to cut down on the stuff you have.

Regardless, you made it. You moved and everything has its spot for now. You only have to wait for the next time to come around and start everything again.

So please help me God

Okay, I am not religious, but a couple of days ago I had an experience which could have easily turned me to God.

I know I live in a bubble, most of us do. We hang out with people we like, who think like we do, because otherwise we would not be able to spend more than 1 hour in 1 room. But at the same time, I try to get a feeling what people are doing outside of my sphere. Oftentimes, it helps to keep me grounded and make me less pedantic. And sometimes I realize people I thought were a thing of the past, are actually still alive and well.

Basically, I live in a rural area and do a bit of circus both in my parents’ backyard as well as in another rural area right across the border in Belgium. So I drive there by car and last time my mom asked me to fill the tank on the way back. I am not a very experienced driver, but I can generally handle the car. Not that much this time.

I missed the first 2 tank stations on the way back, so decided to stop at the next one (third time’s the charm). Even though the previous 2 tank stations were in urban areas, something that is important to remember in my final choice.

So the tank station I did stop at was near a highway, unmanned, with no houses nearby. I parked the car, only to discover that the tank cap was on the other side. With the tank cap on the right side, I remembered I just had to push a button to open it. I pushed a button, got out to check the tank cap, it was still closed. Repeat about 3 times, before I realized I had opened the engine lid.

Having finally opened the tank cap, I filled it up with sweet fuel. Once it was done and all paid for, I got in, put the key in and wanted to turn it. I could not. I tried 10 more times, each time more desperate than the previous one. It did not budge. I got out, checked the engine lid and the tank cap, everything was as it should be. I was highly confused and at the verge of bursting out into tears.

Looking around, the closest house was approximately 20 minutes walking. There was a cafe-looking building, but it was obviously closed. I checked my phone, no credit anymore, so no possibility to either call or access the all-knowing internet.

I got out, walked around the building and discovered it actually housed some people. There was a small terrase with a fence, behind that I could see a sort of dining room with an open slide door and an older couple inside. It was already a bit late, around 22.00, but I still approached them, desperate for some help. I mumbled softly something like “Could you please help me…” while trying to leave the most unscary impression possible. Apparently it did not work.

The first thing the man did, was cross his arms in front of him. I saw the woman nodding her head. I thought I maybe did not see it very clearly, so I lingered, scratched my head and tried to look as innocent as possible. It had the opposite effect. In the end, the man stood up and closed the door. I stumbled back to the tank station to see if anyone had turned up. Nobody was there.

In a last act of desperation, I still went back to the house side of the building and tried to look as pleading as possible in the dark. I saw with my very own eyes, the man and then the woman slowly get up and walk out of the room.

I do not know how exactly I would act if someone randomly showed up at my door for help. I am not a saint or anything, I often decline to give people money if I feel it is not going to something worthwhile. At the same time, it baffled me that these people existed. That you can be so dedicated to not wanting to help or be involved in anything unknown.

In the end, I was luckily saved by 2 very friendly Belgians, who were also amazed at the fact that I still remembered 2 phone numbers by heart, and I was able to return home without much of a problem afterwards.

Home sweet home.

Taking a shot at my retirement hobbies

The past months were quiet, literally and figuratively. While looking for a new job and being in the second lockdown since the beginning of this year, I had a lot of free time and not many places to go to. So like all of the other, seemingly hypermotivated people, I took a shot at some new hobbies.

Yes, I went the full self-development route, doing some music (or impersonating a steamboat as my neighbors called it), trying to do some online courses (with motivation increasingly lacking) and following YT tutorials on things I had always wanted to do (super-basic photo editing skills, check). But what struck me in the end, was the fact that so many things I did required a laptop and looking at a screen constantly. Something I did for hours when I was still working and also during my lockdown in China.

So I wanted to do something else. I am not much of a handicraft person, beyond the occasional origami, and feel a lot of things you make end up just cluttering your house. I have a prime example in my family who does ceramics, sewing, jewelry, painting and drawing. Still, after doing a sort of deep clean of all my stuff (goodbye 2014 instant noodles), I felt I had a bit of room to add new things.

It ended up being macrame. The rope knitting stuff that I remember from my youth as being something the elderly had in abundance.

Truth be told, once I wanted to start on some projects with basic knots, I made an unfortunate discovery. 75% of what I saw being made, I really found ugly. The standard boho/hippie look that is not my jam at all. I am all about clean and graphic work, without fringes or beads.

Nonetheless, I found it quite easy to learn most knots and I made some plant hangers. For a fake plant, because I do not have any wish to grow any plants. And although my back hurt a couple of times because I was so bent over my project, it was nice to work on something tangible and use it as well.

So I am all set for my elderly life of leisure now. I just need to hang on for like 40 more years.

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.

Old-school communication methods

Once in a while, when birthdays come up or the holidays, I think to myself: I should really write some cards and letters. I toy with this thought for too long to send it before the right occasion and then let it simmer for a while. Then, I am suddenly hit by a wave of motivation and start writing letters, folding origami, making use of all the paper I had bought for this purpose. But then I need to find the addresses, go to the post office to actually send it and then wait in agony for happy messages from my friends to old news. And oftentimes, I will send it 3 months after the first time I wrote the card or letter, so I add an addendum.

All in all, it is quite clear I like the idea of writing letters and cards more than actually doing it. At the same time, I do really enjoy the process, and especially in China and Asian countries there is a plethora of cute cards, stickers and letter paper to choose from.

I remember that before I went to China, I looked for letter paper in the Netherlands. When I was younger and pen friends were still a thing, there was a lot to choose from. Not anymore in like 2014. I held onto the few pieces of paper I had like they were treasures.

Then I moved to China, traveled to Japan, Taiwan and South-Korea and was overwhelmed by the choices available. I stocked up enough origami paper to last me 10 years, spent hours in stationery stores picking and choosing paper, bought packages of cute cards to send out.

I am now slowly making my way to actually using up all that stuff I bought at a whim. Once I put my mind to it and sent it all out, it is quite fulfilling. Even writing the stuff and reading back what I wrote if I am adding a letter is kind of fun. And it is basically the only reason I have to write Chinese by hand.

So anyway, I probably would not thrive in the real analog era, but pretending to be a ‘real’ writer from time to time works out fine.

She still got it – cooking and baking again

No joke, I told most of my friends that my mother watched me with astonishment as I still managed to cook several (edible) dishes after not cooking regularly for almost 5 years.

That is not to say I severely dislike cooking and baking, but I just did not do a whole lot of it while in China. I think many can agree with the fact that food is almost too easy to get in most parts of Asia. Under most circumstances you can get it wherever you are at whatever time and in large quantities at a (relatively) low price.

Naturally, I made full use of that environment while I lived in China. I ate out more than I ordered online, but my kitchens were heavily unused. For the first 3 years in China, I can probably count the amount of times I cooked myself on 2 hands. Part was that I had a cat in Beijing who was a: curious and b: hairy so not an ideal environment. Although I had basically all the equipment I needed, it still was a lot less than I was used to in the Netherlands. All this resulted in gas fees that were less than 10 RMB (less than 2 euro) a year.

In Shanghai, I did cook for a few months more regularly. But that changed after I found out there were mice in my building and in my kitchen cabinets as well. Consequently, instead of being a fridge, this became my sealed-off cupboard for any food products that I could still have at home. Mainly instant noodles and snacks.

However, I not only have loads of time now, but also a fully equipped kitchen to my disposal. Additionally, I think the choice for ordering online where I am now is very limited. We only have a McDonalds and a few local restaurants. I have had enough Big Macs that that is not the first thing I am missing now.

So instead, I have been cooking and baking lots. I think we have about 3 kinds of pies in our freezer at any time now, I folded dumplings, wonton and spring rolls in the past weeks, as well as preparing dinner regularly or helping out. Although there is something to say for the convenience of not needing to cook yourself, I am rediscovering a certain joy in making something and directly getting the result. I am not aiming to make very complicated things, but it is fun to experiment a bit and make some things I have never made or thought about making before.

Since we cannot get any people over during these times, cooking more means eating more as well. Honestly, it is a win-win situation.

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.