Chronicling my Saint Nicholas experience because I can pt. 2

How to replace one kind of fun with a different one, but then it keeps on changing.

Young adulthood Saint Nicholas – Now you need to actually put in some effort yourself

The good:

Finally you take the reins. Saint Nicholas is something you not only celebrate with family anymore but your friends get involved. You get double the fun and may actually start to recreate some of the excitement. Of course part of the fun is getting some weird gifts that you do not need. All those times your family did not give you all those useless things, your friends are sure to help you with that. And so long as you do not every year get the excuse “I really had no time to make something better” accompanied by a raffle box, there should definitely be some memorable unpacking moments that will be commented upon for years after.

The bad:

Transitioning into adulthood is just hard, period. There is so much disappointment hiding behind each corner and the same counts for celebrating anything with friends. If you do not have too many people complaining about their inability to write poems, then you may be limited by your own crafting skills. If it is not your own crafting skills, there are bound to be some others who just do not prioritize this highlight of the year. And finally, life tends to get in the way of these celebrations and you may need to start planning 3 months on forehand, only to have to then cancel it a week on forehand because nobody has the time or energy for it.

Saint Nicholas abroad – A lesson in Dutch culture

The good:

This is the moment for Dutch culture to shine! Forget about the fact that we do not really have any food culture or a national dance. You finally get to tell about this very peculiar and special Dutch tradition. It is all good fun and you get to show others something completely new. Experiencing familiar things in a completely new situation will most definitely also get you to appreciate everything again. Yes it was loads of fun as a kid and no it is completely different from Santa Claus. The commercialization and merchandise of Saint Nicholas will seem far more benign in your head, especially because Christmas is just decorations in many non-Western countries.

You can have fun finding out if you can make some of the snacks yourself, or where to buy them, or strategically ask someone early enough but not too early to bring or send them. You will appreciate even the most basic of snacks, and may point at every chimney to remind everyone that they missed out on something great. Those poor kids.

The bad:

Foreigners will interpret everything differently. It is the moment that you will take off the rose-tinted glasses and suddenly be presented with knowledge about certain aspects you were ignorant about as a kid. You suddenly realize things are not as natural as they seemed to you. How black does one get by coming through the chimney? Why did we once think it was unproblematic to paint our faces that color and put on these wigs? And why is it always white old men bringing around these gifts and showing off their benevolence? Most importantly, the horse would explode if it ate all of the hay and carrots kids put in their boots.

And once the scales fall from your eyes, it is easy to see how much hubris is left now. There is police regularly for a children’s celebration and families can get split over such a logical development. And once you start comparing your own celebrations with those in other countries, they may seem not seem so magical anymore. Why do we not have moon bunnies that make rice cakes? Or have a selfish trickster in the form of a spider?

Thus, there is nothing like a new perspective to make you realize traditions just do not make sense. And that even though they change, it only makes it more difficult to explain to others. But that is part of the process and keeping it alive.

So is real adulthood going to ruin this even more? Probably yes. Maybe not.

Chronicling my Saint Nicholas experience because I can pt. 1

One of the few celebrations that is very special to the Netherlands. It has snacks, songs and of course gifts. But like all things that define your childhood, it changes. In most of my adult life, there has definitely been a place for Saint Nicholas and it still has a reservation. So on this festive day, I wanted to put down some of my thoughts and nostalgia on the whole development. Because that is what your thirties are for.

The Saint Nicholas story in one sentence is: an old white man with a red robe and big book rides on the roofs on horseback with helpers to deliver gifts to all the good kids.

Childhood Saint Nicholas – Like a Christmas movie

The good:

Saint Nicholas felt more exciting than my birthday to be honest. Probably because there is at least 10-14 days of buildup towards it. And that is done by putting your shoe near the chimney, stuffing it with a carrot or hay, singing a song and then receiving a gift. In my never-up-before-9 childhood, this ritual was one of the few things that had me jumping on my parents’ bed.

Another thing I remember fondly is going through huge catalogues and looking at all the toys and stuff I might want. Thinking back that I got excited about furbies and toy dogs, makes me very happy that my parents were smart enough not to give me those things though.

The bad:

I was a firm believer in the existence of this mysterious man, mainly because of his horse. At the same time, I never liked the guys that dressed up like Saint Nicholas, especially if they did not wore a red robe or were on horseback. My parents also made the smart decision to skip the dress up part, so I did not suddenly recognize my dad’s or neighbor’s slippers.

There were always Saint Nicholas welcome parades and an actual news channel that starts about 3 weeks before the celebrations. I had zero interest in any of this, even though I accepted the tv Saint Nicholas as the REAL one. I always found it difficult to immerse myself in programs where real people played an, in my eyes then, fantastical role.

And although there are many good snacks for Saint Nicholas, I remember always getting the most basic ones at school. You had these disgustingly sweet chocolate mice and frogs, which apparently have always been factory produced. Then there were the peppernuts, which you can now get in at least 20 flavors, but was not as versatile then. Let me just say it, the basic ones are not all that good. Lastly, it was the so-called taaitaai which is actually tough twice in Dutch and describes the snack perfectly. It is tough, not all that sweet and tastes like something very calvinist, very simple and devoid of enjoyment.

Tween Saint Nicholas – A lesson in growing up

The good:

Many people have a certain moment of epiphany when they realized Saint Nicholas was not real. Some may even feel betrayed by parents and family to have been told this lie for years. That was not the case for me. I cannot really remember when I knew Saint Nicholas did not exist, but I do remember everyone else getting very persistent on this, especially from 10 onwards. Those who were believers got ridiculed for getting pulled the wool over their eyes, and not believing was something the cool kids did. And I did not understand this mentality. At all. So what I remember very clearly, is talking with my mom about this and telling her I just liked the idea. Why was the whole focus on immediately throwing out the whole idea and tradition? Just because it is not true, does not mean you cannot enjoy something right? She agreed and told me we could decide in our own family that Saint Nicholas exists and we ‘believe’ in him. And a few years later, in 2007 All is Love came out which voiced this exact idea in its intro. I never felt so validated.

You can finally buy all of the good snacks, or let your parents buy them.

The bad:

Just like with other celebrations that get less special as you age, Saint Nicholas loses a lot of its magic. It is not that it gets a lot less fun, just that it pales in comparison to what you used to feel. Even though you can still do everything, the excitement is gone. It does not come back, and that is something good to start learning early.

So what is Saint Nicholas like as a real adult? As you move abroad? As society changes? More to follow soon!

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.