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.

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.

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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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.