Small things I miss about China

Having been in the Netherlands for a month now, there are many things I am already used to again. I also miss some big things quite a lot. Of course there is the food and snacks (#bubbleteaforlife), the subway convenience, and digital payments.

Living in a metropolis made me realize I actually am the city girl I pretend to be. Not that I am actually living fully in the middle of nowhere, but getting pretty close. So this is a list of small things I miss a lot and that you should enjoy if you are in China.

  1. Singing on the top of my lungs (even in heavily polluted weather) while biking and listening to my favorite songs.
  2. Shouting loudly in Dutch while biking because nobody understands.
  3. Hearing random shouting in my complex because the walls are paper-thin.
  4. Scanning QR codes.
  5. Everything being open 7 days a week.
  6. An excuse to not google something because I need to use a VPN.
  7. Less focus on food culture.
  8. Standard refills of hot water.
  9. More people on the streets.
  10. People being awake very early.
  11. Confusing people anymore with my local-foreigner status.
  12. Being loud (but not really for Chinese standards).
  13. People understanding the emotions of “AIYOOO” and “WASAI”
  14. Biking and walking around very randomly, regardless of traffic, traffic signs or traffic lights.

It is most certainly not going to end here, but I guess the good thing about returning is that I do appreciate stuff I have here a bit more. Especially with the current situation of course, I am very grateful and happy to be where I am in now.

At the same time, I will be more than happy to return to China (semi-)regularly and surely going to miss even more than the small things mentioned above. That is the thing about going places, you learn to appreciate and discover what you will miss. My journey has only just started.

A picture says more than 1.000 words

It is no secret that most Asians like to take photos. Like a lot. Like an awful lot. Of everything.

Personally, it’s not that I dislike taking pictures, but mainly a case of laziness. I mostly find things either not important enough to take photos of, or I would rather experience the thing with my own eyes. Very millennial-appropriate in a certain sense I guess.

Not so in China. Since I do a sport that is very visually attractive (aerial silks), many people’s first reason to do one of the moves is to take a picture. That is fine, honestly, if it gets you motivated to do it that is good. However, sometimes these people also try out more difficult tricks and poses just because they look good. Obviously not fine.

Equally annoying are people who never come to class, but take tons of photos the one time they come. A friend who dances at a studio sometimes complains of the girls who cannot dance very well, but are always in front taking photos of them ‘in action’, even blocking others.

Truth be told, this behavior is probably not unique to China. At the same time, just like watching videos on your phone without earphones, it seems a lot more common in China.

Chinese people are also pretty competitive, what does it mean to do sports but nobody knows or sees it? Plus, if you have got the right clothing and your body looks nice in the big mirror, that is an opportunity to good to it pass by.

So if you are fit and active, there is only one way to show it. Just as well, if you are out of breath because of the sports anyway.

Why watching TV shows is tiring

So I was staying at a friend’s place for a week while visiting Beijing. She has her TV linked up with the Youku (local YouTube) app, which means she can stream anything that is on there on her TV.

My own TV mainly functions as a washing/clothing rack and card stand, so it was nice to actually watch something on it. I always aim or have the intention to watch more TV or TV shows, yes the stuff that all kids dream about, because listening more to Chinese people talking never hurts.

There is only 1 problem that I established early on: TV shows wear me out.

I remember watching TV shows when I was younger and getting increasingly frustrated and irritated by them as I watched them more regularly. The way that everything is drawn out, the staging of certain emotions and the second-hand embarrassment of some things that are being said. These points all play out the same when I watch a Chinese TV show.

Sure, I pick up some new words or neat way to say things. But the texts are equally overwrought, the acting as overdone and the cliches largely the same. Moreover, Chinese TV shows, especially those involving competition, always emphasize the humility of their participants. They have superhuman discipline, need to hammer down that they had a lot of help getting where they are now and how proud they are of being Chinese.

This is to say that for me, watching a TV show is almost equally unattractive as just regular studying. I remember being on exchange in China and once having the chance to be audience member to a, to be honest, quite boring TV program.

I almost fell asleep. Literally.

I never watched that show, obviously.

Pushing and pulling, but no punches

This morning, I read an article about the bleak reality of gang violence in Latin-America. Yeah, the best way to start off your Sunday for sure.

But it did make me think, there is not that much fighting in China, normally. Of course, certain exceptions exist (a few months ago I experienced one myself) however, physical fighting is just not very common on the streets. Sure, people always tell me that Chinese sound like they are constantly angry at each other, but that is just the ‘beauty’ of Chinese and the fact that most people do not feel the need to be close to each other when communicating (instead preferring to shout from a distance so everyone can enjoy and listen in).

You will experience a lot of pushing and pulling in China though. Especially when you are in any line (subway, touristic spot, restaurant, etc.) or need to wait. This is however quite anonymous pushing and pulling, not especially geared toward you as a person, but more at the crowd in general.

The times I have seen people become upset and threaten to start a fight are actually quite comical. Mostly, it is just the voice that gets louder and possibly higher- or lower-pitched (depending on the gender and amount of anger), and a few cocky movements. Bystanders will gather and might pretend to pull the people away from each other, although there does not seem to be too much resistance to be honest. It all seems very reminiscent of the kinds of fights you might have in elementary school where giving off the image of a fight is more important than engaging in one.

And honestly, I do prefer this kind of fighting in the end. It is more petty, but also a lot less dangerous. Even being a fit and somewhat muscular girl myself, I do not like pulling any punches. It might be my Chinese blood after all.

In or out of touch with nature?

Today, the weather is great. Blue skies, sun shining, slight breeze, clouds drifting, clean air. About as perfect a day you can get in China, which means everyone is on the move of course. That is perfectly understandable, possible even desirable. There is limited room for outdoors activities on a daily basis and having other people in the park besides the elderly is a nice change of scenery.

The park is most probably the closest to nature that most Chinese get. Camping is not a very common way of traveling around, forests are mostly limited to national parks and most animals are still perceived as a main source of food.

In the Netherlands, there also has been increasing discussions if people, and children in particular, are not too out of touch with nature? Do we still understand milk does not come from a carton and that we only eat a small part of most vegetables?

On the one hand, what might help in China is that at least dead animals are quite common. With chicken feet, pig’s knuckles and ears, gutted fish, and intestines all being sold en plein public at most local markets, these images will not be very shocking and it helps making clear what you are eating.

At the same time, the Chinese are pretty ignorant to nature in most instances. Littering, pulling on trees to have flower petals or red leaves fall down on them, building bridges or elevators in the mountains without any regard for the surroundings, etc.

But, one thing that I do envy their ignorance for, is for most pests and insects. I do not think the day can ever come that I do not shriek and shirk away whenever seeing a cockroach. Having the kind of immunity that the Chinese and most other Asians inhabit towards cockroaches is something I thoroughly lack. Solid proof that nature provides some things you should nurture.

Experiencing Chinese communication and family feuds

Fighting happens in the tightest families. I am blessed with families on both sides where this is limited, but that is often not the case for most Chinese. In general, life itself provides plenty of opportunities for things to go wrong, most importantly for the Chinese (and pretty much everyone else): money, work, partner, and kids.

Now, a while back I was on a short trip with a friend of mine (also a foreigner) and indirectly experienced one of the most frightening fights ever. She has described everything in more detail on her terrific blog, go read that as well!

Let me quickly recap: we stayed at an empty AirBnB hotel. The host was the male part of a couple and since it was Chinese New Year some extended family (grandmother, uncle (?), aunt (?)) was present. After a day spent outside, my friend and I returned in the evening and were warmly invited to join a big dinner table, sing karaoke and show off some dancing moves. We were included in video footage to non-present sons and daughters, sang some modern classics and had a great time. But after a while we got tired, the karaoke machine started sputtering and people simply disappeared. So we also went upstairs to sleep, or so was the plan.

However, after having read a bit and trying to sleep, I heard noises downstairs in the restaurant area. Slowly but surely the noises became louder and more distinct. There were 2 persons, most certainly our host couple, screaming things to each other. I could hear other voices trying to hush, but they kept becoming louder. Repeatedly, I heard stuff being thrown on the ground and shattering.

After there was enough thrown around downstairs, I heard footsteps on the stairs to the hallway that was connected to our hotel room. I took a quick peek out the window to see the situation below. It was a mess, with broken glass on the floor and table, mixed with food and a box of chopsticks thrown around.

My heartbeat was so loud I almost thought the people outside must be able to hear it. Instead, I could now hear their insults clearly. The woman screamed: “Fuck your mother! She still owns me 1 million RMB!” The man roared: “Oh please, stop with that and do not dare to say another word about her! This is already long resolved!”

As I mentioned, I am not at all ‘experienced’ in family feuds, and this seemed a particularly feisty one. The insults and accusations were repeated many times. It was definitely not the first time this happened.

To be honest, I was sort of ‘lucky’ to become part of the story. I was also lucky to not be in the same space as the fight since there seemed to be some intense physical contact. At the same time, during the fight it felt like a very tense moment. Since the walls were very thin, and people were thrashing about, it felt like every moment they could stumble in our room. I sat as still as I possibly could, trying to be even more invisible than I arguably already was.

This occasion was certainly my first time hearing pretty much Chinese strangers discuss intimate things so loudly and hotly. But my friend later told me that a previous CNY celebration she experienced also ended in a big family fight. And to be honest, around Christmas do we not see the all-too familiar topic of how to prevent the Christmas atmosphere from being ruined pop up everywhere as well?

So it seems that big occasions lend themselves good to big fights in any place or culture. What was actually the most surprising about this whole thing, is that my friend slept through all of it. When I asked her later if she had heard anything earlier she said: “Yeah the fireworks right?” Truth be told, you do not hear them that often in China I guess.

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.

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.