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: 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.

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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Tourists with Chinese characteristics: bashful backpackers

Although we are in a worldwide pandemic, holidays are not something to be missed. The national holiday in China just passed and I looked with envy at all the traveling going on in the country. It also reminded me of the different kinds of Chinese travelers I would have encountered.

Who?
Millennials, Generation Zs, youngsters who think they are ready to go out into the world. They have enough money to spend on traveling abroad and by themselves, or have enough courage to just dive into the world. Almost always in a pair, either a couple or 2 friends.

Where?
The Lonely Planet and Rough Guide seem a bit too crisp in their hands. They go to the hip coffee places and with an unsure look on their faces order that specific instagrammable drink. Arriving at the desk of hip hostels, they are a bit too tired and carrying bags a bit too new. They aim to set themselves apart from big group travelers by not going to the main highlights, but instead choose all the alternative highlights from the travel guides.

Why?
What is better than traveling? By yourself! All those cool social media photos were taken someplace, without any large travel groups to disturb the environment. They want to strengthen the bond with their friend or significant other, something that will last for the rest of their lives! They have not been able to travel that much yet, so it is high time to change that. With the right equipment and preparation, the world is at their feet!

Thoughts?
How is this so tiring? The bags are heavy, it is too hot and wiping away my sweat just creates more sweat. And after we finally find this small hostel, where our bags barely fit in the lockers, we need to look for another hip dessert shop to get their signature dish. It is fun sometimes, but being together with the other for all this time is actually pretty difficult. And getting the good camera shots is not easy. When do we go home again?

My thoughts?
I have been part of this group, albeit only for a very short time. I knew after doing it for a few weeks, that the backpacking life was not for me. So I always look a bit bemusedly at these hipsters who seem like they just discovered a new way of life that they are not sure they like. Oftentimes, it also seems like the backpackers are ‘backpacking by the book’. The few times I went to well-known local places, I think I always saw a few of them pop up. But hey, I was there as well so we are almost the same. And yeah, if your parents don’t have backpacking equipment, you indeed need to buy it. At least it will be well-worn by the time your kids will want to use them,

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.

It is all about them young’uns

Among all the changes and developments that happened recently, I could not imagine my 30th birthday would be really quiet and memorable at the same time. As it goes when you ‘hit a new milestone’ in life, a lot of people asked about my feelings. I like to think I must have at least defied expectations a little bit when I replied that I actually somewhat looked forward to it.

Especially in China, everyone looks a lot younger then they often are. I feel a lot of parents look way too young to be walking around with kids of their own. And it gets tricky when seeing older women to determine if they are a mother or grandmother already. Besides whitening, I think most people are very focused on staying youthful. Perhaps because of the polluted air, the fact that all photos (including official passport photos) get retouched or the ubiquity of plastic surgery commercials, there are many ways to be reminded of the fleetingness of your youth.

To be honest, when I see images of very old people (85 and over in my opinion) they do not seem really attractive or anything. At the same time, I imagine it must be nice to sort of leave all of the pressures of looks and appearances behind (provided you are not a celebrity).

Furthermore, looking at some of the other older people around me, especially now that I do not see that many people around my age due to quarantine anymore, I fully admire their peace with most things in life (except for the cleanliness of the place they live). For Chinese elderly, there is an added feat of general fitness that I also hope to keep up in my old age.

Having become 30, I already feel more comfortable in some ways with life and myself than the past 5 years. At the same time, though life passes really quickly (now especially), I feel I still have so many years to go (without too many real problems hopefully) before I will enter my ‘full retirement’. Well, for now I can already enjoy having that status for any future kids and teens I will meet. A good way to already get used to the idea at least.

She still got it – cooking and baking again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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