Tourists with Chinese characteristics: fanatic families

For the past month I have been travelling through South- and Southeast Asia. Especially around Chinese New Year there are many Chinese people going abroad as well. On the road I saw many different kinds of Chinese tourists. These impressions include a few of the different types.

Who?
A mom, a dad, 1 or 2 kids (byebye one child policy) and often some extended family members like grandparents.

Where?
Most families obviously have a limited program. Chinese families often even more so since they focus on the main attractions.

Why?
This is probably the beginning of family life and they are just settling in. With the kids still being small they get in for free at most spots. Everyone can relax a little bit, see some different things and meet new people.

Their thoughts?
Mom: a combination of tired, worried and excited. One of the few holidays need to be spent happily with family. But it is hot, and there is so much to take care of. Luckily dad carries most of the snacks and drinks. Are the kids hungry? Are they not getting too tanned? Where is dad anyway? Will I be able to buy all the souvenirs I promised my co-workers to bring back? This bird is so pretty, I really need to take a photo of this. Our kids should really learn more about nature now that they have the chance. Which sightseeing spots have we not covered yet?

Dad: this is not entirely how I pictured life with a kid. A heavy photo camera dangles on my belly, which is also starting to accumulate some ‘baby fat’. God is it hot here. Wiping my forehead while looking for some shade. This garden is really nice and the kids are playing outside. Sitting down this suddenly feels eerily similar to any other time I go out with mom. Waiting, looking and obeying. Mom motions you to take photos of something. What will be for dinner tonight?

Kid(s): so many different things! I can jump from the tree to the stairs. I want to carve out my name in this tree! And in the stairs! And in the temple! Where is dad? I want food. Mom is so annoying taking her time. When are we going home?

Grandparent(s): I am getting too old for this. But it is really nice to see the kids play. Do they drink enough though? I can tell all my friends in the park once I return that my grandchildren already went abroad.

My thoughts?
Families rank about medium on my irritation/frustration scale. Of course it depends on the age of the kids. Babies are terrible when they cry or excrete bodily fluids. When they talk and walk, kids often do too much of both. Grandparents tend to walk too slow and skip lines since they can often get away with it. Moms often take pictures of everything all the time. Dads mostly just look sad. But for the average backpacker, Chinese families are quite avoidable. Also, it looks quite exhausting to be in a different country with a group that seems to have mixed goals. It really turns fun into a verb.

Nostalgia is a powerful thing

It is almost time for the new year to start (again, more on that in my post of last last year). And this year, I am returning to Beijing where I lived for almost 3 years. Planning stuff with friends to do there is of course the perfect moment to think back on all those good times.

I actually do remember quite well that I was quite annoyed with Beijing when I left. It was way too noisy, the people rude, the air polluted, the food greasy, the temperatures too high or too low and the city all in all just did not attract me that much anymore.

Fast forward to having stayed in Shanghai for only a little over 6 months, and I am already telling everyone that I like Beijing more. Its noise and rude people seem eccentric now, the polluted air a ‘minor inconvenience’, the food flavorful and the temperatures are only a bit better in winter and worse in summer where I am now.

What is worse, this does not change when I actually return to Beijing. Everything seems nicer in a smaller time frame. Even when I am sad that things have disappeared, as they always do, the joy of recognition is much stronger. Oh, and chaotic traffic is the best. Not getting any fines when cycling as well. Not having to break out in cold sweat whenever I ignore a red traffic light, afraid a cop will suddenly turn up behind me is also pretty relaxed.

So I will be enjoying my new year in the best and worst place in China I know. I will give Shanghai a chance the rest of the year.

Sound the fire alarm

Having just watched a film in a cinema today, made me realize a thing I already knew before. The world is filled with hypocrisy.

In this case, I am referring to the fire safety clips they always show in Chinese cinemas before the actual film. It might be a strong and trustworthy fireman, an animated helpful robot or your average guy turned fire superhero, all of them urge you what to do in case of a fire. It is just as rote as most of the flight safety reminders when taking an airplane.

Of course, in almost all other cases there is much less, hardly or even no attention paid to fire safety. I remember when I went to China for the first time more than 15 years ago and eating in a hotpot restaurant. These were the times when the soup was still being heated by gas bottles whose tubes basically crossed the entire restaurant floor. And of course there were enough open fires with people happily smoking inside. Nonetheless, we lived to now tell on this tale luckily.

Another instance that comes to mind is in my own apartment building. Living in one these old, traditional 6-story flats already means that fire safety norms are non-existent. There are no emergency exits and stairs, and I doubt there are even smoke detectors installed.

Actually, I am quite positive there are none, because I saw my neighbors burning some money in the hallway a few days ago. Burning money in itself is not that strange, most Chinese do it when someone passes away or for other ceremonial purposes. However, it was quite windy and there was a cloth hanging over the door which seemed to come awfully close to catching on fire by the flames below it.

So naturally, I just headed out quickly and prayed nothing would catch on fire. I do not know if the burning of the money helped with that, but so far everything is still standing.

Animated Animals: It is the sound of the underground

You walk to a subway entrance and look around. People silently go in and out, some bumping into you silently or with little more than a grunt. You look around and suddenly see a bird hopping around. It hops to the elevator, seemingly waiting for someone to open it. As inconspicuous as possible you walk to the elevator and press the button. The bird and you enter.

Once inside you cannot contain your curiosity. “Excuse me, where are you going?” The bird cocks its head at you. It spreads its wings, is that how they point at stuff? “Today is the market.” As if that should clear up everything. You are just about to ask your next question when the doors open. The bird quickly and silently flies into the subway corridor.

You try to follow it while trying not to be too obvious that you are following something. The bird flies around a corner, past the security off to where the subway arrives. You quickly go through security, swipe your card and practically run downstairs. On the platform, you vaguely spot something at the far end.

The bird is in front of a door on which it knocks once with its beak. Without a sound it opens slightly, allowing the bird to hop in and you wriggle you way through as well. “Hi Mel, how are you doing?.” You suddenly hear the bird say. You look down and see a cord is attached to the door handle which is held by a mole. He looks at you with his blind eyes, slowly nodding for you two to continue.

You are in a kind of janitor room with cleaning supplies all around you. “It will be a bit of a walk, but you can grab something to eat at the market.” The bird says ahead of you. It flies through another door at the end of the room and you follow it into a dark tunnel. The dirt tunnel loops around and you can hear the subway passing far away at regular intervals. Although you seem far underground, the temperature is actually pretty warm and luckily there are no sidetracks.

Suddenly you hear sounds. Voices, sizzling, singing, music, the kinds of sounds you hear on squares throughout China. Within a few steps, the tunnel opens wide and reveals a square. One full of mainly animals, a few humans, and a lot of activities. There are cats and foxes playing mahjong, pigs and goats stuffing themselves at food stalls, turtles and fish lounging in a pond, peacocks and magpies are dancing in formations and there even seems to be some matchmaking going on between dogs looking for their loyal partners. This is a place that merits some further discovery.

It is not the most wonderful time of the year

The holiday season has arrived. Christmas trees are all up, Christmas hats are on heads and ginger is in all foods. Not to put a damper on the whole atmosphere, but these are not the most fun times to be in China.

There are many holidays in China, mostly based on the moon calendar. They also often involve gods, family and almost always food. But Christmas and New Year’s are not included among those traditionally. That means the Chinese have a different perception of this time of year than most Western countries.

Discounts, shopping and food. Those are the most important ingredients for Christmas over here. It is that time of year when all those faded decorations that are there all year long suddenly make sense. The time when all employees are obliged to wear a Christmas accessory on their uniforms, which makes their poor service only stand out even more.

To make matters worse, for many students the exam season is often around Christmas. I remember studying here in 2012 and having the joy of getting delicious food pictures sent by my family while making exams. Although there is of course no shortage of delicious food in this part of the world.

All in all, December is already a bit depressing and the commercial and artificial atmosphere do not make it better. To cap it off, New Year’s is always a disappointment since no one cares at all. Oh well, in any case we get a second new year in February to catch up on all the festivities.

Sweeping the nation

Fall has arrived in Shanghai. Or rather, it has been below 20 degrees the past few weeks, a couple of times under 10 and generally around 15. Most importantly, the weather has turned the leaves a different color. Preferably yellow, but mostly brown.

I just did a search to make sure I had not written about this yet. Leaves are a big deal in China, and larger parts of Asia (and according to an American I met, apparently also in some Western places). Meaning in this case that it is important enough to generate its own terms. Looking at them in this case. I remember when learning the words “looking at red leaves” in Chinese, everyone in class was quite giggly about it. Is this something we have to learn? Is this actually an activity people say they are going to do during the weekend?

Well, yes it turns out to be that way. Although, to be fair I do not think I have ever heard anyone actually say they are going to ‘look at red leaves’ over the weekend. However, there is a “looking at red leaves season” and there are certainly “looking at red leaves places”.

As I read quite recently and fittingly in a column last week, some things are only worth it for the pictures. That is certainly the case with these leaves. Although fall might be a season reminiscent of melancholy and chestnuts the right leaves make for a lasting impression. I think that actually the only time I have Chinese actively sitting on the ground or encouraging one and another to do so, is below yellow-leaved Ginko trees, even going so far as to picking them up the ground and throwing them in the air.

While the general public goes crazy for the right-colored leaves, many others do not have such luck. This is also the season where all the not-pretty-enough-leaves are being swept up by the countless people sweeping the streets (hidden unemployment very much). These are the times when it seems that non-biological material only gets swept up if it is in a huge pile of leaves. What would they do with all the leaves they collect? Perhaps they do organize special “looking at leaves events” for these experts. Who knows, it might even make road cleaner become a much more wanted job.

Travel makes the world go round

Since it was just the October Holidays, a slightly insane amount of people and money changed places. It is a time when everyone who can have a holiday goes somewhere to hang out with millions of others. These are the moments that you are reminded of and astonished by the scale of this country once more.

Being a Dutch person, I of course was traveling as low budget as possible. And the good thing (for my wallet, not my back) is that seating places on trains are very cheap. The bad thing, besides your back hurting quite a lot, is that there are actually many people willing to stand in the train. For 4, 14 or 24 hours.

I could have known that it would be busy when I returned last Sunday from Nanjing to Shanghai. But in some misplaced optimism I thought it would be within certain boundaries. Of course it was not.

The thing with people standing in the aisles is, they take up space. Even more so when they have a suitcase. A large one. The train had become a venerable mountain landscape, incidentally the Chinese do use ‘people mountain people sea’ to express somewhere with a lot of people, where everyone had to literally lift their suitcases to get through the aisle.

Consequently, I sat on an aisle seat, sort of half reclined by somebody’s hip leaning on the seat and somebody else sitting against my upper leg on a quintessential Chinese tiny stool. To top it off, the grandpa next to me had no less than 3 smartphones, and played loud Chinese songs on each of them for every hour we traveled.

All in all, it was a typical Chinese journey. It really captured the charm of traveling during China’s national holiday. Thank the Communist Party for its existence.

Nothing to be done pt. 4

“When are you coming around?” Something I am not saying to anyone I would like to actually come, but my (un)trusty repairmen of course.

“Do you know if your neighbors are home?” Surely one of the most logical responses to that question ever. Sidenote, no I do not know if they are home.

So after a few messages on WeChat, setting a date and then not coming, setting a new date and still not coming, setting a final date and somehow showing up it was fixed.

What was funny though, is that my contact person of the housing agency sent a picture of the fixed and newly connected pipe. with a heap of mud around it. “It is done!” The accompanied text said. I was a bit confused and certainly not happy why there should be a heap of mud around the pipe for my washing machine. If there would ever be a heap of mud somewhere in my house, I would certainly not want it to be next to my washing machine.

“That heap of mud needs to go.” I said curtly. “There is not enough room to cover it up, it will be fine.” That is the favorite answer of course besides, “Nothing to be done” (see the title of this series).

I was certainly not going to let all our efforts lead up to me having mud piled around in my house. In the end, I understood it was cement and I made them understand it should at least be flattened out. As a bonus, they did add a tile on top of it. It made me feel very happy to have this extra service, even though I had to ask for it at least 5 times.

2 weeks have passed now without any middle-aged unhappy men, young and useless repairmen or wringing housing agency employees knocking on my door or reaching out to me. I have been using my washing machine without any problems. Life is good again.

Nothing to be done pt. 2

“Well,” I said to him “I am only renting this place so I will talk to the housing agency and let them get back to you.”

The guy stared at me blankly and replied gruffly: “Who are you renting this from?” I told him my agency’s name and he gave no sign of recognition at all. “Give me your landlord’s number, I will contact him directly.”

At this point I started to get a bit fed up with him. Mind you, it was not even 7.30 and I still had no leaking problem in my house. I think we went through multiple forms of the conversation above in the next 10 minutes, until I finally convinced him to leave his phone number so I could reach him.

I mentioned that things can move quick in China, and surely I had a repair guy ordered through the housing agency’s app by the next evening. However, when he came I of course had no problem at my side. After checking if the downstairs neighbors were at home, of course not, I called the management guy a few times. Finally he picked up and my repair guy talked to him in the same Shanghainese-tinted Mandarin about the matter.

“Your pipe from the washing machine is too small, it needs to be changed.” He asked if it would fit in my bathroom, which I assured him would be impossible unless I wanted not to take any showers or not go to the toilet anymore. He took a look at my kitchen to see if it would fit there and decided the plumbing was too weak and again there was not enough room. Finally, he looked outside my window in a pensive matter, took a couple of photos which he would send to the agency and left.

This situation as described in the above paragraph then happened at least 3 more times. I had multiple guys visiting me, not nearly as excited as it sounds of course, and all of them made pictures, told me the pipe needed to be changed, asked if it would fit in my bathroom or kitchen and then left without actually doing anything. I almost started to wish I would have become a repairwoman if I could do my work in this way.

And then the weekend came  around. I needed to do my laundry.

Nothing to be done pt. 1

*BOOM BOOM BOOM*

I took a look at my phone. It was 6:50. Also, my alarm did not sound like a cannon. I tried to picture myself sleeping and dreaming that sound, but it was a little bit too real.

*BOOM BOOM BOOM*

“Hello anybwody hwome? Wopen de doowr!”

Note: this is not too make the person sound drunk, rather it was quite a heavy Shanghainese accent and I was not being very diligent in my listening.

Why was this person so confident that people are happy to open their doors at 6:50 for strangers? Now it happens to be that the walls in my building are very thin. Not that I actually know my neighbors (they were lighting up a fire in the hallway a few days ago. It did not make me want to befriend them more), but I was still a bit concerned that this might go on for too long to be comfortable.

So i put on some clothes, slowly got out of bed and opened the door. A 50/60-year old man, of about my height (1.60 cm) looked me suspiciously in the eyes. “Something is leaking.” he said bluntly. Or, to be fair he might have said a bit more, but that was lost on me. I looked back quite dumbfounded, as there was not anything leaking in my house for the past month.

He barged through the door, walked to the balcony where my washing machine was and looked out of the window. “Here” he said, “You need to move this washing machine.” Now I am quite a strong and healthy person, but I am not too confident in my washing machine-moving skills. Nor was I quite sure why this guy, who certainly did not look very professional, would be the right person to tell me so. “I am the management of this building, your washing machine is causing a leak further downstairs.”

The good thing about China is that times are very flexible. You can eat at any hour of the day, go to the bank in the weekend (or more like spend the weekend there) and arrange a housing tour on the same day. Truly, I think this was the first time I found that this timing was working against me.

So naturally I did something quite logical. Of course I should not have.