Tricky translations: shawarma

Trying out a more language-focused feature on cheesy translations and slogans related to food in Chinese.

Foreign food in China has a kind of multi-level enjoyment. Not only will you be tasting familiar food that is hopefully tasty, but you can also relish in the translation they chose for your dish. Case in point here is shawarma, something that is quite popular in the Netherlands (possibly one of the few warm breakfasts the Dutch consider, although mostly only when they are students). Shawarma has not necessarily been one of my favorite dishes when I was in the Netherlands, and being back again for over a year I have not eaten it again yet. Its main redeeming feature is probably that it can be combined with lettuce, cheese and fries into the infamous kapsalon, although I normally eat that one with doner kebab.

While in Beijing, there were a few large shopping malls I went to eat. The amount of food that is available in Asian shopping malls is really unparalleled to anything we have in the Netherlands. Regardless, more choice also makes it more difficult to decide and I would often pace up and down the lanes with increasing hunger. I remember seeing for the first time the name of this restaurant and almost bursting in laughter. It was called: 想我么 shawarma. In English that translates to ‘do you miss me shawarma’. The catch is that ‘xiang wo ma’ also sounds like shawarma.

I am not sure who came up with this name. I have heard stories from friends that the person who thought up the Chinese name for Coca Cola was awarded price money (although I can find no very reliable sources with a quick Google search). Looking into it a bit more, it seems the restaurant was a collaboration between Chinese and foreign business partners in Beijing. They appear to have split and the Chinese partner omitted the ‘xiang wo ma’, but the foreign partner is still using it for their separate restaurant.

As a name, even though it is so cheesy you would not need anymore cheese with your shawarma, it works very well. Another quick Google search turned up some customers who were baffled by being asked if they had missed them. And it is very easy to remember, even for people with only a limited understanding of Chinese. I hope the restaurant can somehow get big enough to make ‘xiang wo ma’ the official translation for shawarma. I can already imagine it going viral on Douyin, creating a new holiday when you romantically eat shawarma with your friends, family and partner, as well as a cute mascot for merchandise.

But in the meantime we are stuck just eating shawarma.

The friend circle: Olympics & book

In WeChat there is this nifty feature called ‘friend circle’, which is basically akin to a Facebook timeline. Since I am not in China anymore, I do not actively follow most of what is happening in the friend circle anymore. To motivate myself to check it out a bit more often, I will list some random things I saw while scrolling down. It is also a nice way to keep a bit of a pulse on what is happening in China, of course subjectively.

Olympics

I am very uninterested in watching most sports. I am very interested in doing some sports, but the Olympics that are currently happening, do not really interest me at all. However, I saw quite some posts in my friend circle about this Japanese gymnast. Apparently he made a grave error, but still got high points regardless. And people are now critiquing the judge, the gymnast and the Olympics as unfair, partial and shameless. To be honest, I really cannot understand all the fuss being made about these things. And it is very easy to just write on Twitter “THE JUDGES NEED TO GET THEIR EYES CHECKED” if you can do that from the comfort of your home, while probably sitting down. Things the sporters are not doing.

The most interesting things about sports, is the similar reactions you see by almost everyone. The comments, about the judge’s eyes, or the sporter being a failure, or the sarcasm that he got his points is uniform. Sports really unite. But in a most ugly way.

Book

A book that one of my contacts bought, popped up that seemed interesting. The title is Seeking A Little Upward Mobility Amidst A Frenetic Life. In English, the title sounds like every other self-help book which is probably correct since the blurb says: “[This] is a spiritual book by a famous author. Listen to famous authors talk about how they read, how to keep their inner peace. How to learn to be silent, and how to cherish time. Life is too chaotic, but that doesn’t stop us from getting ahead.”

I have a sort of innate dislike of self-help books. On the other hand, I always try to motivate myself to read more. Especially in Chinese. I can read Chinese quite well, but it goes very slow. Kind of like French, where I can understand pretty much everything but prefer to look up at least 1 word per page just to make sure. And that transition to the dictionary does not go very smooth unfortunately. The story does not continue there. So a Chinese book always serves as a welcome reminder, that I would like to not spend a whopping 7 years on finishing another Chinese book, but that if I would still do should better start now.

Daily tidbits: Why not make things more complicated?

I have been in touch with customer service quite a lot these days. That is always a frightening thing, although I have had my fair share of better and worse experiences. However, in this case it was Chinese customer service, because I needed to arrange some things for my phone number.

There is something amazing about the way everything is so interconnected in China. When you have an issue, there is always a way to address it. You can chat with customer service or give them a call, basically 24/7. At the same time, it never ceases me to amaze me how complicated they can make things at the same time.

When I still lived in China, I moved to Shanghai and got a new phone. I needed a new simcard, a nano one instead of the mini I had. after calling my provider’s customer service, which is totally separate in Shanghai from Beijing and provides no way to be redirected, they told me that I needed to come back to Beijing for a new simcard. So just to get something with a little bit less plastic, I needed to travel more than 1.000 kilometers. Which I did and found ridiculous.

Now that I am in the Netherlands but still using my Chinese phone number for certain occasions, it’s a different issue. I had freezed my number, but was unable to easily recover it again due to forgetting my password. I again chatted with different officers at different times in the Chinese night but in the end I was only able to finalize the process by contacting a friend in Beijing and having her directly call them.

I am not sure if this is arranged in this way for a specific reason. Is it to ensure that the physical staff still has a role to play? Is it because they want take customer service difficulty to the next level? Is it because they are available 24/7 that all staff is so tired they cannot think of any customer-friendly alternatives? To be honest, I think it is just another way for us to remain grounded. That we remember we can do great things, and also make simple things impossible.

Daily tidbits: What makes this hurt my back?

Ever since working from home became common, a new game emerged for me to play. Basically, it was: what makes my back hurt today? To be honest, I think in normal life my posture is quite good. Probably because I am pretty short and thus always need to look up anyway. And in general office equipment tends to be of a higher quality than the chairs I sit on at home. At least for work purposes.

When lockdown began, I actually sat a lot on the ground or laid in my studio. Because space was limited and work scarce, which actually made my hips and sides hurt more than my back. But once I actually found a regular job and started regularly working from home, it was my back’s turn to let me know of its existence.

I resisted bringing the proper chair from the office for quite some months before I capitulated and actually brought the high-quality one home. However, with my currently limited digital nomad life (basically just travelling between 2 cities that are 45 kilometers apart) I sit on a lot of different chairs while working. And although there are definitely high-quality chairs around me, I cannot always hog them to myself.

So today I made the ultimate compromise. I think this trend was hip about 10 years ago when we started paying more attention to the health and well-being of employees. It was the time when we were making fun of al the ‘strange’ contraptions companies came up with. Standing desks, biking desks, back cushions, feet rests and exercise balls. Yes, there seems to have been a time when we thought everyone would be bouncing around in office and behind their desks. Needless to say, it did not happen. But I bounced behind my desk today. So that is me finally hopping onto one trend.

Daily tidbits: Hot tea hurts the tongue

Yes I drink tea scalding hot. Yes it burns my tongue. Yes that hurts. I started drinking increasingly hotter tea and beverages while in China. I remember the first few times I was travelling in China and leaving half a pot of hot tea or water whenever I left the restaurant or cafe. So I ventured on ones of the most ardous training, that of the tongue.

I do not think I have ever really burnt my tongue. My dad apparently split his tongue once when he was exerting too much effort, and my mom has a Frankenstein tongue. My tongue is pretty normal, except that is has undergone this secret training and now I can handle almost all hot beverages. So long as I do not spill anything on myself. Because that still hurts.

The training has not been easy and I have half-burned my tongues probably quite some times in the process. Even now it is not fool proof. There have been enough situations where I burnt my tongue. And then I could not see anything either because of the condense on my glasses. Double trouble.

It is quite satisfying to be able to down hot beverages quickly. I cannot handle any alcohol so no way to impress anyone on that front. However, tea cups can be the same size as spirit cups and they keep refilling your cup in China for both beverages (something I miss a lot for the tea). So you will see me sweating, drinking and running to the bathroom in a bar, just like everyone else.

Daily tidbits: Not sharing is caring

Today I remembered to finally eat my last orange. Right before I headed out the door for a precious meeting with another human being in real life, I opened my cabinet and put the orange in my sweater’s pouch. Even though I had told it to become orange, there was some green to it, but the texture said ‘eat me before it is too late’ so I brought it.

Oranges are not really my favorite kind of fruit, but I feel they are a bit more reliable in taste than apples. I cannot say how much disappointment I have had whenever buying apples and having a soft, mushy one instead of a crisp bite. I must say I did not have this problem in China, since they had a few kinds of apples that were bound to be crispy, so another thing to miss as I moved.

I tried to see if I could start the peel by using my non-existent nail, which failed as foreseen. So just as I was biting into the orange, my friend arrived. In that split second I thought, “I probably cannot offer him a piece anymore now”. And when we sat down and I was ready to take my first piece, I hesitated for a second before eating the whole thing myself.

Now I grew up in a situation where I was often hungry and not with people who had anything on them (or were even contemplating someone to get hungry). And I am now conditioned to share anything with friends, even if it is just a cookie, since almost all are so kind to do that with me. So I felt like a real, egoistic only child eating this fruit and not having offered the other one a share.

This made me think about the way we share food here and what I was used to doing in China. In China, food is everywhere, at anytime and most importantly widely shared. Sometimes I did not dare look at anything edible, lest I would be confronted with the question: “wanna have some?” Of course, this is a first-world problem, an issue I would love to have in my life again.

But for now, I think the current pandemic gives us a great excuse to not share food (as much) and to be a bit more egoistic. As long as we still care of course.

Weathering through the days

To be honest, I think caring about the weather is just another sign of adulthood. When you’re a kid you go out if it rains cats and dogs, get totally dirty and still convince your parents to just let you shower next week. Now I still do not shower that regularly, but before I go out nowadays, I rigorously refresh a weather app or website.

Now, this change started to come in China, because besides regular weather forecasts, there was also the smog alerts. If you knew next week was going to be shrouded in grey mists, it would make you much more motivated to go outside while it was still acceptable. Afterwards, the pandemic broke out and the only thing we can do is go out. So besides being much more glued to our screens already, we have another thing we can check through them.

And to be honest, sometimes it is kind of fun. Since sports is only possible outside now since I need a certain height, I try to maximize the time that I can be outside. It may be dry at 15.00 on Sunday. But then again there may be wind, rain, snow who knows.

Which is by the way a crazy phenomenon which I also experienced in China in August. I think rain and hail at very unexpected moments, in great quantities, is one of the most shocking things to experience. It is cold, but not as cold as it normally is when these things happen, but more importantly it is very useless. Everything disappears in a matter of minutes or hours, it is all so futile. Like your life flashes by in a few seconds.

And the problem, especially in the Netherlands, is that forecasts are notoriously unreliable. You can only feel cheated. It follows almost the same age-old adagio of bring your umbrella so you can make sure it does not rain. Put on your rain boots so you surely do not need them. On the other hand, we do have beautiful skies here. The best solution may be to just stare at them a bit more often to just see what is actually happening up there.

How to know if you mastered a language

I learned multiple languages throughout my life and am actually adding another one (Russian) at this moment. Of course I learn languages because I find it fun, and it is very nice to be able to list more than 4 languages you can speak. But at the same time, it can be quite frustrating to get a certain fluency in these different languages.

The language this counts the most for in my case is Chinese. I have a Chinese face, which is kind of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it is very convenient to be able to blend into streets in East-Asia and not have anyone question if I am a local or not. At the same time it places certain expectations on you that I cannot meet. Because I am a foreigner there. But nobody believes me.

When I was still studying Chinese, I started out speaking it very badly. I know that because I was reminded of it everytime I talked to locals. Even more so since I hung out with Dutch-Chinese friends who spoke Wenzhounese or Cantonese at home and thus sounded a lot more natural. New friends even told me that they could not really understand me for the first 6 months in Chinese, but somehow everything had worked out fine.

Generally, my conversations would go something like:

Q: Can you tell me where the subway station is?
A: ThesubwaystationisoverthereandyoujustgonorththenturnleftandarriveatentranceA.
Q: Sorry, can you repeat?
A: Howcomeyoucannotunderstand? WhyisyourChinesesobad?
Q: I am not Chinese, can you talk a bit slower?
A: YouarenotChinese? ButyoulookChinese!
Q: Please, just tell me where the subway station is.
A: Go north. Then turn left.

For most ‘general’ foreigners, the conversation goes something like:

Q: Ni hao, can you tell me where the subway station is?
A: Oh my! Your Chinese is so good! The subway station is north and then turn left.

Quite a difference and it caused me to be pretty frustrated while learning Chinese. Now that I am more fluent, in a foreign environment and not expected to speak Chinese, I get the opposite. After all these years people sudenly start complimenting me. Saying that for a foreigner (the keyword of course) my Chinese is very good. And I always think to myself: “TOO LATE, I WILL NOT ACCEPT YOUR COMPLIMENT. SHOULD HAVE SAID THAT ABOUT 10 YEARS EARLIER.” Plus, now it makes me question my level of Chinese. Is it only good because they know I am a foreigner? Do I now also have the ‘benefit’ of foreigner bias?

I guess it is asking yourself these questions that shows you have some proficiency.

An incomplete list of things that the whole world shares during celebrations

It is the first day of the year of the ox. It is also Carnaval in catholic parts or Northwest Europe. And of course Valentine’s Day is coming up. I was just thinking about the ways everyone celebrates differently, but some things keep coming back. An incomplete list:

  1. Good food. I was talking about this a while back with friends and we determined that the one holiday in China which does not heavily involve food is probably Tomb Sweeping Day. Judging by the name you can probably guess why. That said, most other celebrations are mainly about the food, and the same actually counts for many Western holidays. Truth be told, chocolate eggs do not make me drool as much as mooncakes or zongzi, but I will take what I can get now.
  2. Family fights. I talked more about this in this blog. One of the best New Year’s stories I have.
  3. Family reunions. We know we will fight and have to listen to aunts and uncles complaining about everything, including our own accomplishments, but we always suck it up and just do it. It is funny how much of a change blood and the knowledge that it only happens once a year makes for our toleration of others.
  4. Decorations. I like decorating as much as everyone else, but if you really think about it does not make any sense. Why do we have all this stuff which we show to everyone once a year, but it inappropriate the rest of the year. I actually do get those Chinese Christmas stickers that are not removed.
  5. Annoying kids.
  6. Unrealistic ads.
  7. Unrealistic expectations.
  8. Dressing up.
  9. Travelling distances to gather. I am lucky to not have had the need or space within the country to travel very far, but it happens. On a large scale. Voluntarily.

If you think about it, we are all united in making it hard for ourselves during a time we are supposed to relax and enjoy. We not only pressure ourselves, but also each other to be happy about situations we normally would not put ourselves in. That is a universal holiday message.

Text as an art form

Literally anything is printed on clothes now. There are (in)famous examples with swear or curse words, but everything from internet memes and slogans to good old brand names features on clothing now.

I think in the past years a so-called reverse trend took place here. Actually, ever since the Superdry brand became a regular on Western streets, I feel there are much more Chinese and Japanese characters on clothing. In addition, friends who know Japanese told me Superdry’s Japanese brand name also does not make sense. It is like we have come full circle. Granted, I have not seen any clothes with Japanese or Chinese curse words yet on a grand scale, but that may just be the next step.

I understand the attraction of text on clothing, I wanted to be a cool girl very badly when in high school and craved a sweater with the brand right on front. But once I got old enough to not care that much about those things (although who am I kidding, I literally write hoping people like reading it) I actively banished all clothing with text on it.

On my first few trips to China, I remember everyone in the travel group being mystified of the incoherent English on clothes and products. But thinking back to it now, it seems just a less extreme version of the Chinese characters that Western people like to get as tattoos. And to be fair, I think almost nobody can escape the coolness or mystery that a foreign language exudes. I remember going through travel stuff I kept after learning Chinese and discovering all the wedding/hospital/cram school flyers I found because I thought them special when I did not understand anything on them.

And to be honest, I have a few years ago caved once and got a t-shirt with text on it. In Dutch even. But that is just to pretend with my Chinese face that I may not know what it says, even though I do very well. It is this irony that my generation excells in, something I talk about more in this blog. At face value, nobody realizes this, but being misunderstood is probably the favorite state of being for many of us.