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.

I feel pretty

It is actually quite funny how I am basically called out either as ‘hey beauty’ or ‘hey auntie’ on the Chinese streets here.

In the Netherlands, we normally know that we are real adults once strangers start ‘Miss’ing’ you. “Dear Miss, you forgot this.” “Excuse me Miss, do you know the way?” “Miss, can I help you with something?”

Here in China, I had sort of the same feeling when I somewhat transcended seamlessly from ‘sister’ to ‘auntie’. A change that I am still not too happy about. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the ‘hey beauty’ (or ‘hey hunk’ for all those handsome boys out there) that I get called multiple times a day whenever I step a foot outside of my office. This might also tell you something about the office I work at and about my looks, but let us not go there for now.

Of course nobody on the streets means the description literally. It has gone so far that I do not think these terms are used to actually describe a beautiful girl or handsome boy anymore. Having kids and parents call me auntie, actually irritates me in 2 ways.

First, it of course makes me feel older. I already experienced this when my nieces and nephews got kids, most of them being around 5-7 years older than I, and realizing I was suddenly an aunt.

Second, I associate it with a certain familiarity or warmth that I do not possess. I think most aunties in stories are warm and forgiving. They are the surrogate mothers where kids can get candy and have fun and play. I do not have such feelings for random kids. At all.

At the same time, I am wondering where exactly the limit is when I will only get called auntie. Or perhaps there is a specific name they use for gorgeous 50+ year olds that I only know once I enter that club? One more thing to look forward to as  I get older.stock-rose-1525145_1920.jpg

Well, it is only the rule so…

I sometimes think that the expression “Rules are meant to be broken” comes from China. Even though there are many ways in which people listen or accept things at face value, there is certainly a lot of room for opposition as well.

Of course, this manifests in somewhat negative ways as well. Going off the beaten path in the mountains (although mother nature put this sign here urging you not to), shaking the trees for flowers or red leaves (ignoring another sign that says trees have feelings too) or simply squatting on the toilet seat (how do you do that anyway)?

But it also means that there is in a certain way more room for exploration. For example, if you are looking for a place and you are not sure if it is in this building, you can almost always enter it. It does not matter if the guard is awake (although oftentimes they are sleeping) they almost never ask questions. Once you are inside and realize within 5 minutes that you are not at the right place, nobody will even blink twice at you coming out again almost immediately.

Once you have mastered that stage, you can move on to the next: making your own rules. Everyone constantly is in a certain way just doing their own thing. Wearing whatever they want, setting up their street stall wherever they can, getting on the bus in the middle of an intersection or singing along very loudly on their bikes. It is almost mindful.

After that stage, there is only a final one left: blatantly ignoring the rules. It helps if you do not understand or can act as if you do not understand people talking to you. I once stopped sort of half-way on an intersection with a friend and pretended to not understand the traffic guy yelling at me to stand back. He gave up, muttering something about me being Thai. Or an alternative is directly talking to them in your own language and catching them off-guard that way. I have only done it once, but it is definitely one of my greatest achievements this year.

Oh, and it also works great to avoid agressive advertisers or people asking you the way. In general, it is a great way to not make any friends.

Quiet, please!

So, I already mentioned China is not the most quiet place ever. Another train trip, which are the best way to submerge yourself in a full Chinese experience for several hours, confirmed this again in another way.

I have talked in lengths already about being single in China and some expectations in general that we as societies seem to have about relationships. Moving past that, you obviously see many differences in child-rearing and education between countries.

Something that amazes me all the time when I see Chinese kids, is in how much they are allowed to do and actually encouraged to do. I have seen kids do things which actively inconvenience their parents, running around the table or stomping on the table for example, and them just somehow being totally cool about it.

Now in the good sense that I am a stranger and generally would have no wish in meddling with other’s affairs, I of course keep my mouth shut. However, in a closed-off space like a train, these kids are bound to also influence your personal experience.

Ignoring children crying, which though very annoying is also somewhat inevitable and impredictable, there is something that is sort of actively encouraged. And that is TALKING VERY LOUD.

Now that I think about it, I also experienced this in a Dutch train once before. In both cases, it was almost the same situation. A grandmother and a kid (boy) of about 5 years old (not accurate). The boy talking very excitedly like “I AM GOING TO SHOOT YOU BECAUSE I AM A COWBOY AND VERY COOL.” And the grandmother replying something like “YES YOU ARE MY YOU ARE SUCH A HANDSOME COWBOY!”

In the Chinese situation, there was also a grandfather who quickly cleared the premises, as did I. It could of course be that the grandmother is hard of hearing and needs to talk very loudly to the kid. And they are both immune to social cues. So now everyone else is also going to talk very loudly and no-one can hear each other anymore.

Well, if you think I am talking too loudly, then you know it is all the kids’ faults.

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.

I need to come clean

So, let us talk a bit about hygiene today. China is a very two-sided country to live in with regards to this. On the one hand, no one will put bags on the ground and restaurant staff will be quick to bring you something to put your bag in or on. Furthermore, once you drop something on the table it is deemed to be lost. Contaminated and poisoned for only the bravest to pick up. And of course food preparation itself is something that is under increased scrutiny these years, to make sure no mice, cockroaches or other foreign object end up in your mouth.

On the other hand though, this is the country where people spit freely on the streets. Where people will rather sit on the toilet itself than the seat. And where cleaning is being done to spread as many bacteria as possible, by using the same cloth to wipe counters, tables and the toilet.

All in all, it seems that there is a notion of hygiene, but it is not always very logical. For example, many large shopping malls and office buildings have cleaning ladies. Oftentimes, they are middle-aged and clearly cleaning the building the way they have always done. With age comes this certain tenacity, so you get the feeling that no matter what you say, they will stubbornly continue doing what they have always done.

Putting away the part of people cleaning useless bars, fences and glass panels, I want to focus on the toilets for now. I have literally seen the worst techniques for cleaning toilets being used here daily.

Exhibit A: I once entered a toilet where some mango ice smoothie was spilled on the ground. Not only was it wet, it was also sticky. No problem, the cleaning lady simply got the bin from the toilet (keep in mind that we do not flush toilet paper here in China, it is thrown separately in those bins), emptied it above the mango stain and in a few swipes brushed it away. Needlessly to say, the floor was not clean.

Exhibit B: just yesterday, I wanted to go to the toilet at my office building, but the cleaning lady was doing her rounds. With a familiarly greasy mop (I do not think I have ever seen clean mops being used here) she absent-mindedly swept the floor. When one of the stalls opened, she swiped the floor, put the mop into the bin with all the toilet paper to make it humid and stomped it a few times, swiped the mop past the toilet itself and was then generous enough to let me enter.

A few days ago I saw a cockroach in the toilet which was so large it made me instantly flee the stall. When I came out, another girl went in and went out again immediately as well. We connected on a spiritual level.

Hush, hush, hush

Peace and quiet. Two things people definitely do not come to China for. The whole environment here is just plain noisy. From people to pets, from cars to cicadas there is always something happening and you can hear it.

I live in a ‘traditional’ 6-story building in Shanghai and there is always some pipes making a noise, or the airco outside, or my neighbors getting up at 7 to dance to very loud music.

In Shanghai, it is prohibited to honk for the greater part of the city center, but in Beijing that is definitely not the case. The symphony of all the noises sadly do not come together and it can make for quite an overwhelming experience when a bus, a truck, a car and a scooted are all honking at each other at the same time.

Furthermore, the Chinese are sort of famous for letting others ‘enjoy’ the sounds they make. Whether it is playing mobile games (without earphones), watching a drama (without earphones) or plainly calling (without earphones on the toilet), everyone can very clearly hear what they are doing.

It is the same with human comunication. People rather loudly call each other from the other side of the street, than cross it to talk normally. Kids running off are being accompanied by the increasingly louder screams of their parents that they need to come back. It does not work.

So in this environment, I always find it quite funny when people find me being too loud. I think I have been told a bit more above average to be quiet, or that I am loud. To which I can only say: I am a product of my environment. Apparently I sound more Chinese sometimes than the locals around me.

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.

Good looks never go out of style

It is no surprise that both the Netherlands and China have very different opinions on what constitutes good clothing and nice style. You could almost say they are polar opposites, with the Chinese often adhering to more is more and the Dutch to less is more.

But that is of course not the complete picture. Let me paint a short overview of the female looks that can be seen in both countries on the streets:

Standard attire:

Denim Dutchies – The Dutch are not necessarily very pessimistic, but they do seem very blue. Denim, especially skinny jeans, are our informal national attire. It is amazing how there is a basic outfit that everyone wears, from teenager to women in their forties. Pick a random top (often in a subdued color), throw on a pair of skinny jeans and a pair of ankle boots and you are now dressed the same as 85 % of the Dutch female population.

Colorful Chinese – Not to be outdone, the Chinese often also have a basic outfit that everyone wears. It is basically called everything goes. Pair that t-shirt with bad English on a ripped pair of jeans, match it with lacquered shoes with pompons and a hat with ears. And it is funny that even though everyone is wearing very different combinations, it somehow looks similar because it is such an eccentric combination of clothes.

Relaxed attire:

Tricot tricks – Soft, stretchy and with every print imaginable. Tricot is something probably every Dutch woman has hanging in her house. Often with a funky print to give it that hip edge. Oftentimes tricot is very popular for wrap dresses, chique and comfy at the same time. Or so we like to believe.

Sleepwalking – Your pajamas. Or those house suits. Both are fine pieces of outerwear for your average Chinese. Whether you are going for grocery shopping, picking up your kids or going to the theater. Why would you trade in any of your comfort and not match your top and bottom?

Trendy attire:

Basically basic – Most Dutch are more interested in wearability and quality than following the latest trends. Sure, they might take a daring outing to fashionland once in a while and return with a tiger sweater or breathtakingly ugly sneakers. But hey, at least you can wear those and they are somewhat practical.

Impractically Instagram-ready – Korea and Japan dictate many of the fashion trends in China. This means that a lot is copied and a lot is combined differently than originally, since it is available so quickly. It also means that brands take much more risks when putting clothes in stores. I have seen sweaters accessorized with things that resemble cheerleader pompons. The Chinese understand that fashion and practicality are two different things.

You have a funny sense of humor

Truly, how many times do we say that we like or do not like someone because of her or his humor? Certainly, there are those among my friends and other people I know with whom I share my jokes or do not. And then there are of course those who just laugh about anything anyway (you know who you are!).

But to be honest, humor is something that is really culturally specific. I have often said things in an ironic or sarcastic manner, such as “Why would it be that way, huh?” or “We know what they are doing with that…” Having an honest answer or receiving honest questions to these rhetoric sayings always puts me off a little.

At the same time, I have watched some Chinese television where I either find most jokes not funny or plainly do not understand. The last situation expecially occur when it is traditional Chinese cabaret (相声) or something related to traditional opera etc. I have literally watched twenty minutes of this programme where whole comedy troupes compete, are allegedly very funny, but it does not really come across.

A thing that is quite funny, are Chinese puns. I was going on a trip with some friends recently and saw a Chinese shop called 非常稻, the English translation being Very Rice. Where the English version is literally a wordplay, the Chinese spoke a bit deeper to me. It reminded me of the first sentences of the Daodejing, the sacred text of Daoism. This sentence in Chinese is道可道非常道, which in a way can be translated as “The Way that can be expressed is not the everlasting way.” Although this does not have a direct link to rice bowls (which is really what the restaurant sold), it is still quite clever.

This different use of the first sentence of the Daodejing also reminds me of a short play I did while in university. But that is something to be told another time.