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.

Please take my picture

I gladly tried to forget that this past weekend was International Children’s Day. On the one hand, it is because I am not a fan of children and kids. On the other hand, even though China is an aging society, somehow all these kids pop up out of nowhere during the weekends.

What amazes me a lot, is how many pictures are taken of kids. I know in the Netherlands, most kids, I think boys and girls almost equally but for different reasons, do not like to have photos taken. Boys often find it takes too long, they might make a weird face just to get it over with and continue playing. Girls can be shy or get uncomfortable and not want to look in the camera or just freeze.

Not in China. Of course, it helps that smartphones are ubiquitous, and the Chinese in general are more visually focused. The “Photo or it did not happen!” slogan really counts for them. Whether it is sports, food, art, travel or any other aspect of life, it is important to have it documented digitally.

Naturally most Asians are well-known for their peace signs in photos, with hearts also becoming more popular in recent years. It seems that the combination of fixed poses and high tolerance for visual recording leads to kids being very aware and willing to be photographed over here. I am always amazed when I see 4 or 5 year old kids (do not pin me on that number though, I cannot guess age of kids at all) striking a perfect pose whenever their parent decides it is a photo moment again.

Even if they need to take more than 5 pictures, the kids may start slumping a bit, but discipline often takes over so that the end result is appropriate. I also almost never see them very actively protesting or at a loss of what to do in front of the camera. Shows that it pays off with some things to start at an early age.

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.

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.

Hidden unemployment in plain sight

So, there are a lot of things you learn in high school that you never use afterwards. For geography, which was one of my weak subjects, this might actually count a bit less. It is quite useful to know about Pangea and why Dutch soil is weak and why exactly Amsterdam is built on stilts.

But in daily life, I do not think or wonder too much about these things. Something that is very relevant though, is the concept of hidden unemployment. I have already mentioned and experienced enough that efficiency is not held up to the highest standards in my country (watch my washing machine saga unfold and be surprised). This is because with all these people around, we need to give them something to do. Even though it makes no sense or could be done better, faster, stronger by a machine.

I am putting aside the tedious factory work that is still making a living for many people around here. But let us take a look at the slightly less depressing examples of hidden unemployment you encounter on a daily basis here.

1. Parking meters: I do not think I have ever actually seen a parking meter in China. For parking garages, the West of course also still uses human labor as well. You could argue that having people do this work on the streets, provides some slight benefits. They can yell at you to possibly make parking your car easier (or not), perhaps you can bargain for a slightly lower price (probably against the rules) and they can keep an eye out for your car (if they are not sleeping or talking or otherwise not paying attention). Another thing that makes it almost nostalgic to encounter these parking fee people is that you often can only pay cash. Perhaps that is their most important function, preserving a link to the past.

2. Security guards: Sure, the soldiers outside the embassy gates look slightly menacing, those probably would serve some kind of purpose in any event. But with all the security cameras in this country (apparently some 20 million throughout the country) you might think hiring some extra people to make security extra inefficient is unnecessary. Of course you would be wrong. The most fun parts of my day are sometimes walking into building where I am clearly not supposed to be (I explain this technique in more detail here) past a sleeping, talking or otherwise clearly not paying attention security guy and walking right out past him within 10 minutes. But perhaps, they are meant to serve as a secretly rebellious example. That as a security guard, you can be on duty, and probably being filmed as well, without actually doing it. Or even more so, with doing the opposite.

3. Cleaners: It is amazing how much there is being cleaned in this country. Not necessarily with the goal of it actually becoming clean, but merely the act. On the streets there are sweepers on every corner with just a broom and dustpan, then you have the slgihtly cooler sweepers who have their own little garbage trucks and you also have the people in those automated street sweepers. And the streets are also being sprayed once in a while. You have people sweeping streets with dry mops, with water machines to clean the pavement, dusting of handle bars and fences. The end result is a cleaner street than you would expect, but not an environment as clean as you would hope. This might be because sweeping up leaves is not actually cleaning up anything. Or because people keep throwing trash in places that are not trashbins. Or because almost half of the cleaners seem to be 50/60/70+ years old.

In the end, we can argue how much use any of our jobs have. In this sense, China delivers a healthy reminder daily that most of us do not really matter that much. A message, that incidentally fits the Chinese dream quite well.

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.

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.

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. 3

So being a good tenant, I took the advice of my housing agency and just started up my washing machine. Not even 30 minutes passed when I heard some familiar tapping on the door and saw the same face in a state that combined anger with frustration and a touch of sadness.

“You are using your washing machine!” It sounded as if I had started a war with my unknown neighbors below.  I started explaining that I was just following advice I had gotten, but he started to mumble and walk around as if he could just take up my washing machine and move it around to solve the problem. In the end, he sort of told me that I was violating the rules and since there was no repairmen coming, he would get a guy of his own. He then stormed out of my house again.

So I reached out to my housing agency and asked them to have it repaired again. And the guy said, “Will try tomorrow.”

But the management was of course getting his own guy, so I again had visitors a few minutes later. I do not think I need to tell you what the management’s repairguy did. He walked to the washing machine, looked out of the window, took some pictures and told me I could not use my washing machine. Getting quite a bit frustrated myself I got both of them to hear the full message my housing agency sent me. Told them I am only a sheeple and following orders so if they tell me I could use the washing machine, I would.

It left an impression. Being direct still is a good way to get people to back off in China. But they would still be coming back again soon.