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.

What to add to your tea: a rant

Anybody who knows me, knows I am crazy about bubble tea. It is something I developed relatively late, but got very passionate about quite quickly. And I am rubbing it in everyone’s face that I was smart to drink all that bubble tea while in China, because we do not really have it here in the Netherlands. Let me correct that: we do not really have it where I live. Let me further correct that: they do not really have it how I want it.

To be honest, as long as there is variety, I am a very easy person. Probably counts for most people. I only ask, for some pudding. We eat vla here, it is very similar. Heck, they eat flan in France and they literally throw that stuff in your bubble tea at Yi Dian Dian. And I know bubble tea is very trendy now. Especially the cream cheese variations. But it is not the same. In this sense, I am conservative and a purist. Just give me my pudding.

And sure, if you do not have pudding I may go for jelly. The grass jelly and bubbles go quite well together, complementing flavors and textures. I sometimes got very adventurous and would opt for some yakult and coconut jelly. But that is only if I did not feel like milk tea, which honestly would only happen if I got it 4 or 5 times per week to begin with. And at Yi Dian Dian (although Coco has my heart, let that be stated black on white) they had some nice coffee jelly as well, if I wanted a hint of bitter. Sometimes I would combine taro and pudding on cold winter days with warm milk tea for a drink that could actually serve as a dinner (snack), filling you up and keeping you warm at the same time. In summer I would often opt for the smaller bubbles, just to give it a different texture. But with pudding of course.

Although I sometimes strayed, it was mostly out of necessity. If the next Coco is 1 km away and there is a Happy Lemon next door, sure. If I really craved some bubble tea and passed by a Gong Cha, I would not say no. I tried Hey Tea! 2 times, once taking a special bike ride with a colleague to one shop where there wasn’t a crazy line. The other time actually waiting for close to 90 minutes because somebody else was treating me to it. And these lackluster experiences ensured I would never stray for long.

It is almost concerning that I am able to write longer pieces about bubble tea with an ease that does not come with many other topics. But I guess that shows you can really feel passionate about some things. I am eagerly waiting for the day I will be reunited with the few brands I would have points cards for. I used to have a Coco umbrella even! If they are ever opening applications for overseas ambassadors, I need to be first in line.

Summer is not the same this year. I hope it will soon be as I remember it.

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.

China: an olfactory journey

I read an article today about our sense of smell and how it is generally undervalued. Mentioned briefly, but not expanded upon is the fact that smell plays a bigger role in non-Western cultures. I immediately was reminded of China, which is truly a country to be experienced by all 5 (or 6 if you have them) senses. A day experienced through the nose would be something like this:

Breakfast
About 50% if not more of Chinese eat their breakfast outside. Especially if you have gruelling 996 working hours, but that is something to discuss in more detail another time. You can find the food by smelling it. The small food carts and stalls where jianbing, youtiao and baozi are fried and steamed right in front of you. Even if you have had something at home, you may grab something extra, just because it smells so good.

Morning at the office
Because so many people get their breakfast on the way to the office, in the morning it is often a combination of different foods, hanging in the air. Combined with the damp office where everyone is inside most of the time and not always a window open because of pollution outside, this can be a less fun olfactory experience though.

Lunch
Just as you’re starting to smell the warmed up, home-cooked meals of your colleagues, you can often slip outside with some others to go lunch at a restaurant. A restaurant always has a strong smell of something being prepared, some spices hanging in the air if it is a good one.

Afternoon shopping
I do not know how they do it, but many shopping malls have the same smell. It is a slightly sweet smell, mixed with cleaning products and makes every mall you enter vaguely familiar. Maybe you will get something sweet, almost all cafes have a flowery, sweet scent that makes your teeth ache without eating their cakes. Looking for a toilet? You will smell it before seeing it, which is not always a good thing of course.

Grocery shopping
Many groceries can be bought at wet markets, but even super markets often have a ‘fresh’ section. This means that there will be many fishy, meaty and fruity smells pointing you to the right aisles. And for good measure, if you do not have the time to cook yourself, you will undoubtedly smell the oil and garlic of the instant-cooking section where you can get a snack or dish fully prepared to take away.

Dinner
Garlic, ginger and oil. Many Chinese dishes require a combination of these 3, and plenty of other spices and sauces of course, promising to have your kitchen smelling fantastic (if it all goes well) and your stove a mess. If successful, Chinese food is the kind where everyone will be taking a few deep sniffs of every dish before actually eating it.

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.

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.

Film rewriting: Little Women

Things are opening up again, including movie theaters. And one thing I did miss in China, were the smaller places we have here where you can find the non-blockbusters. It is a bit ironic then that the first movie I watched here, was one of the more mainstream ones.

Hearing the title Little Women, it kind of reminded me of A Little Life by Hanya Yanigahara. I have not read both books, but they must be quite different after watching the first one’s adaptation. Little Women is a romantic setting, à la Pride and Prejudice or Wuthering Heights. A Little Life is more of a biopic including many different characters and their struggles, a focus on the realistic instead of the romantic.

So Little Women, then, has the following synopsis on imdb:

“Jo March reflects back and forth on her life, telling the beloved story of the March sisters – four young women, each determined to live life on her own terms.”

It feels similar to Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility in the setup with multiple sisters who all have quite different personalities. Although I pretty much bawled my eyes out during the second half and liked the movie in general, there were a few things I would have done differently.

  1. I expected to see a bit more evenly divided screen time. Of course it became clear early on that we would just be in Jo March’s head, and Amy March as a good second, but I hoped to learn a bit more about the other 2 sisters’ perspectives as well. Especially Meg March, who is shown having some grudges about the life she chose, but there is no real catharsis from the one argument she has with her husband, to her frolicking in the garden with her kids at the end. Let alone talking about the sickly sister Beth March, who mostly serves just to be taken care of instead of being a fully formed character.
  2. How did they manage to make this main love interest guy look so much like he does not belong in this era? He is cute, but his body language reminded me of a cool guy who just put on these clothes because someone told him too. Also, he is not even fleshed out that much. We see him bantering with his teacher, who marries Meg March, and hear through other characters that he does not have a very good relationship with his father, but none of it is really shown. This makes it even more difficult to look beyond his modern demeanor and see him as an actual Victorian gentleman.
  3. Jo March is played very well by Saoirse Ronan, but her arc is kind of… anti-climactic. Especially since during the movie’s title sequence, a statement is shown saying something like “my life has been tough enough, so I only wrote about frivolous things.” And I am not one to say that it is ‘not tough enough’ if you have to scrape by or lose a family member, but the problem is that you do not see a lot of moments of real despair, besides the main ‘climax’. Even though everyone is not thriving at the beginning, neither of them really have failed. Add to that the fact that you mainly see flashbacks of happy family moments, and all the tension created for the final romance, sort of feels undeserved.

This is not to say that I do not like the movie, I just think it is a bit too sweet for my taste. I really love Pride and Prejudice and liked Sense and Sensibility as well, so I certainly have a soft spot this genre. It just nagged me a bit while watching the movie that I was waiting for a punch, but only got soft pats.

N.B. I did not take into account the original novel (which I have not read) for these critique points.

Film rewriting: Battle Angel Alita

https://www.flickr.com/photos/zongo/33133416758

Comics are sort of the new favorite source for films these days. Of course we have Marvel and DC, but also manga (and anime) have served as inspirations in the past years. With mixed results to say the least.

On the other hand, it seems that production values and budgets increase as well, hopefully leading to better quality films (in any sense of the word). This all leads me to the newest addition in this genre, Battle Angel Alita.

This is actually the first manga-based film, where I actually read the manga. It was about 10 years ago, so not too fresh in my mind but I remember enjoying it quite a lot. The basic premise of the movie is as follows:

“A brilliant scientist finds a broken android in the scrapyard. He rebuilds her and discovers she has a strong appetite for battle and sports (motorball). While (re)discovering herself, she becomes part of a competition to rise above others and literally above the city to the promised land.”

Honestly, the story line is quite straightforward so here are a few things I propose to make it a little bit more interesting.

  1. Can we have more shots of sports training? Motorball is like this intense, extreme competition where people, androids and robots literally completely rebuild themselves and lose their lives. Yet, we only get a mock practice game and Alita’s first real game before we are told at the end that she rose to the top in a few months of beating everyone. Where are the photos of those moments?
  2. Could we get a little more background information as to why certain people like or do not like Alita? The best friend of her main love interest (more on that in my next point) just does not like Alita, for no particular reason than that she beat him at the first game where he cheated, but keeps hanging around and going to places. And then in the end, he still dies for his friend even though he just insulted him of becoming weak because of her. That is just not how friendship works.
  3. I like Disney and hot guys as much as the next person, but it just does not match in a gritty, industrial and serious environment. Please throw the scene where he wakes up without a shirt out of the window immediately. Please do not throw in a cheesy quote such as: “You are the most human person I know”, when it is literally directed to an android. Please do not have the guy thanking the girl for changing his world as he falls to his death. And if possible, just find a less standard hot guy type. They just look too clean, no matter how dirty their environment is.

Apparently, this is only the first film in what is to become a series. As a stand-alone film, it is fine. It does the story enough justice, but could certainly improve in the next films. In any case, at least this was not the next Dragonball disaster.