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.

Familiar flavors: Hotpot

With the holidays right around the corner, food and dinner finally get the attention they deserve in the West. Not entirely coincidentally, that was what a big part of my daily life revolved around in China. And even though there is limited family gathering this year, there have been plans to do hotpot. Which will be great, but just not the same.

Hotpot

What is it?
Simply said, you boil raw veggies and meat in a soup. Does not sound too special or appealing, but it is great. You have many different kinds of soups, really the cornerstone of hotpot. Additionally, you have the fun of literally cooking your own food, and enjoying some nice soup on the side. Sitting around a big hot pot of soup really gives you warm fuzzy feelings (also because of the warm food entering your belly) and you can basically eat anything for hotpot. You combine hotpot with a dipping sauce most often sesame sauce (the best, one and only I will recognize) but especially in southern China everyone makes their own concoction out of different options.

When to eat it?
If we believe haidilao, a big chain, then 24/7. But normally, hotpot is eaten during winter, most often for dinner or as a very elaborate midnight snack (hence the 24/7 opening times). Rules are there to be broken of course so summer time makes for a nice hotpot opportunity as well. Nothing can rival winter hotpot inside and winter outside though.

Anything bad?
Some hotpot soups can be very spicy. I remember I went to Sichuan with a couple of friends and I literally could not taste anything I fished out because the soup made my whole mouth numb and tingle. Otherwise there are no real drawbacks to hotpot, you can avoid anything you do not like that others put in there. It can only be a shame if some things are overcooked and then only found after they have disintegrated.

Where to get it?
Haidilao and Xiabu xiabu are probably the 2 most well-known chains. Xiabu xiabu is more of a fastfood chain with rows of individual, 1-person hot pots. Haidilao is on the other end of the chain, not-quite-fine-dining hotpot but famous for its good, (slightly creepy but) very friendly service, long wait lines (but you can do your nails while waiting so…) and high quality products. And of course there are many other places to go to for hotpot as well, although your mileage may vary.

How much do I miss it?
About 8.5/10, especially now it is winter. There is hotpot in the Netherlands, but it is far from my home and probably quite expensive. And it is also about the convenience of hotpot, the fact all the veggies are pre-cut and served directly on a plate, then quickly going into your mouth. And lastly it is also about the company you share the table with. So here is to hoping 2021 will bring the real stuff!

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The 3 Chinese ways to repair a bike

I biked a lot while in China. Of course it has to do with my Dutch upbringing, but it’s a nice way to move through a big city. Less walking than the extensive metro network, less traffic jams and people around you than in the overcrowded buses.

But nothing lasts forever, certainly not the average Chinese bike. Even though they may leave the bubble plastic on it (which makes it look only more dirty after a week). And because I am a responsible adult, I naturally repair my bike for these small things.

The Chinese have a special way of dealing with bikes. Although they used to be the standard modus operandi, they have long since been replaced by a plethora of ridiculous and less ridiculous vehicles like: electric scooters and steps, hoover boards, unicycles, tuk tuks, and more. But repairs for bikes, and most other 2-wheeled vehicles as well, still take place next to these small iron closets that are opened every morning by the repairers. I don’t really know why, but normally these shops are also combined with a shop to make keys or repair them. Perhaps theh run lucrative businesses copying the keys for the bike locks so they can sell the bikes?

In any case, the actual repair process almost always goes along of the 3 ways described below.

1. You have something that is broken and they can easily repair it with something that will break again in a few weeks. But hey, you can still use it in the meantime.

2. They give it a good hit with either a limb or a tool. Often this solution proves to be surprisingly long term.

3. Once they start to repair it they get stellar advice from their neighbor. Or the next person waiting for the repair. They may even ask you. The result varies on the advice given of course.

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 it?
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!

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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.