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.

Biking battles: The origin

“Let me bike to work today.” Quite an innocent thought, if you might say so yourself. So you pack your stuff, glance outside to make sure it is not raining and go out.

At the bicycle parking lot of your compound you look for a while for your bike. It is black and, like most others, rusty and old so it does not stand out too much. It takes you a while to find it, because you realize the community workers moved things around again. To have a large space in the front of the lot to put nothing. Probably for a higher purpose, or to perform some rituals. Things happen for a reason right?

Nevertheless, you get on your bicycle and bike away with a speed which makes the security guard pause and stare in his morning talks. Your compound is quite old and although they often renovate the roads, the fact that people people do not care and keep walking makes sure that the road stays in the same state.

After having crossed that first hurdle, you enter the main road. Here, the real fun starts of course. The traffic lights designate the invisible race that is taking place here. Bikes, steps, unicycles and scooters are going ahead, because the buses, cars and trucks have speed and mass to compensate. You are eager to get to work, so after making sure the right lights are red, you cross in one smooth go.

It always amazes you with what kinds of vehicles people enter the road and what they take with them. Lately, carrying bikes on your tricycle or truck seems to be the new trend. And you always have the hilarious look of people on folding bikes with an electric motor on it, does that not defy the purpose of a folding bike?, or the ones who can barely sit on their steps because they are so small and lightweight.

So getting on the road is only the beginning. The road ahead is long and you need to get to work. On time preferably. What to do?

I will have hot water, thank you

Walking to work today (with blue skies and in bright sunlight mind you!) thinking about something quintesstentially Chinese: hot water. Okay, hot water is of course not only limited to China, luckily, but the way they use it here is quite Chinese I would say. They drink it. Without any added flavor. Except perhaps for some other chemicals that are in the water here naturally (or not so naturally).

Anyway, I remember that when I started to drink hot beverages, I would drink tea, but with sugar. Not with milk, I did not like English tea like that. And also no green tea, because it was too bitter. Then, when I was 11 we went to China for the first time. None of us, except for the local guides, could speak Chinese (and I dare say my English was quite spotty then too) so most of the times there was no sugar. Furthermore I discovered that there was often not even tea or any flavor in the pot. Plus the water was boiling hot, so that even a full table of foreigners mostly only finished half a pot of tea.

All this mystery continued for a while, but did not leave me unmoved. Sugar disappeared from my tea routine. Milk entered it in the form of milk (bubble) tea (that is milk powder though, not liquid milk) and scorching temperatures no longer became a match for my tongue and mouth.

So after having ample of experience drinking tea and hot water, I am officially trained. I can mostly drink any water directly after it has been boiled, can drink it with or without a flavor and drink loads of it. This is especially helpful in China since you can get a refill of your tea ad infinitum. I heard my friend complain that the Starbucks in the Netherlands charges 30 cents (eurocents!) for it. Ridiculuous!

The advantage of hot water is that you have a hot drink, which does not have too strong a taste and can neutralize other tastes. Very handy in China where strong flavors reign and the tongue can sometimes get a bit too much coming at it.

Also, Chinese teas have so many varieties and flavors. No bitterness in green tea. It is amazing, the best. Although I am too lazy to cook it at less than boiling temperature. I do remain a foreigner of course.

Film rewriting: La La Land

Shamelessly plugging into the publicity that La La Land already has because of the Oscars and its popularity. Yes, I saw the movie, I even saw it twice. I liked it a lot, love the music, understand (part of) its popularity.

So I am not going to tell you the synopsis of this film, since it is everywhere on the internet and otherwise you know how to go to www.imdb.com (or you just learned now how to). But basically it is a slightly more realistic lovestory with some very good music inserted.

Actually, that is one of my main complaints, there is not enough music in it. Okay, granted I looked for the full music soundtrack on my Chinese (slightly illegal?) music app and it had more than 40 numbers. However, half of them are instrumental tunes which only last for 30 seconds to 2 minutes.

I absolutely loved the first 40 minutes of the film and the first two songs. The opening is one of the happiest traffic jams you will ever see, and I whispered to my friend when we would ever be standing in such a traffic jam with 40 handsome young people who can dance and sing. Shortly afterwards the second song follows which is a nice twist on the getting ready sequence that usually happens before the party.

I reckon it is because the film is between an actress and a musician, so the instrumentals get a lot of time to shine. I did miss some unison singing and flashmob dancing though. I remember watching the remake of the Hairspray film as a musical film a few years ago with some French friends. They were clearly not into musicals, since I heard them whispering at a certain point: “They are singing a bit too much.” Which of course is the whole purpose of a musical film, but never mind.

So to get to the purpose of this writing exercise, herewith some recommendations for La La Land:

  1. I understand it is an idealized version of having it difficult, but being able to regularly go to parties, afford a nice apartment (even shared) and take off from work when you want to (and not even serving customers adequately), does really defy expectations quite a bit. Would it not be nice if she had some harsher conditions to go against?
  2. So can we have a bit more motivation for the change of heart for these starstruck lovers to start looking at each other differently? I mean, he swipes sand in her shoe and then they start dancing. Why yes, is that not a great dating move?
  3. For the final reel of how ideally their relationship/lives should have gone, can we shorten it a bit? By this point we have already been watching for about 1,5 hours, and we can basically imagine ourselves how it should have went. The first part of re-enacting the original movie was fun, but could the family/kid part not have been shortened? Yes it could have been.

But perhaps if it was even slightly more realistic, there would not have been as many Oscar nominations and wins. Oh well, who cares about that anyway right?

About learning Japanese in China

So pretty much my next favorite country besides China, Belgium and France is Japan (probably should keep a spot for a Scandinavian country too since the chance of me finding a partner there is very high). Because I have been slacking with my Japanese studies since about 2013, mainly keeping it up through watching anime and reading manga at about one page per 15 minutes, I found a buddy to start doing Japanese again with. In China.

If I could say anything about the Chinese education system without really participating in it, I would sum it up as being: rigid, not very interactive and faithful to the textbook. This would actually turn out to be true more or less once I started. I could start a separate career as diviner!

For a Dutch person, this is of course quite the opposite of what we like to have. We tend to focus more on interaction (even if it is students saying a lot ‘I do not know the answer’), flexibility (ooh the ‘Leids Kwartiertje‘) and being creative with content (‘Yes teacher, I feel watching a movie would be very helpful in the learning process.’). So how does it feel to experience a wholly different system?

Rigid: Well this is mainly manifested in the way that each class is pretty much the same structure. 20 minutes discussing the new words, 10 minutes of reading the standard text, 1 hour of grammar and 30 minutes exercise. The fact that I know this structure already after only 2 lessons is in itself kind of amazing.

Not very interactive: Yup, this matches. I just described that we had only 10 minutes of reading and 30 minutes of practice. This is still divided by about 5-7 people. Furthermore, it is very easy to just not participate. The fact that we have teenagers (yes, 15-year olds. Nostalgic.) means that they are readily using this. One of two has clearly been sent here by his parents as extracurricular activity and is consequently one of the least motivated persons I have ever experienced studying a language. The girl obviously has watched (quite) some anime since she insterts a ‘Nani?’ (Japanese for what) between everything and is just in general sassy in a way that is not really constructive (‘Congrats teacher on writing the wrong character.’).

Faithful to the textbook: We have a bingo! Incidentally, even the short test (which is really not worthy of being called a test) uses the exact same sentences as the textbook examples. Like, word for word. And then the teacher advises us that we should really not look in our books. It is quite cute, if it was not about something as relatively serious as teaching a language.

So I might sound quite negative here. The fact that we are cramped in a small rectangular room which is about 15 square meters (does remind you of Japan in a certain sense I guess) and an atmosphere that is lethargic does not help either. However, there are also bright spots:

  1. I follow the class with a Dutch-Turkish friend, so we are the foreign stars of the class.
  2. My level is easily the highest in the class (which does not say a lot, this is the second-to-lowest level we are following) so I can act smug and be a know-it-all legitimately.
  3. It is effective to at least be actively engaged with this language for 4 hours a week. Those are 4 more hours than before!

So that also consitutes a bingo. Guess it is a tie for now.

What words mean

The brain is a strange thing. Once you do not know something, you cannot imagine how it is when you understand or know it. Once you do know it, you automatically forget how it is when you did not understand or know it.

Last weekend, I had a niece visiting who was in China for the first time. It made me remember how everything was when I visited China for the first time, or even when I did not know the language as well as my face would assume. With all the characters and different pronunciation(s), you adapt to a wholly new way of conveying things and processing information.

Of course, a cultural component also plays an important role with the establishment of these differences. In many Asian cultures, it is less common to be very upfront about feelings, ideas or opinions. China also has this up until a certain degree. The Netherlands and other northern European countries are on the other side of the spectrum, voicing thoughts openly.

Since I grew up in the Netherlands with Dutch parents, I am quite direct, but not the most extreme. Even within the Netherlands, differences exist, mostly between the northern and southern parts. Then again, China is even larger so I cannot even pretend to be speaking for China in general. However, the Chinese expression, 口是心非, the mouth says yes but the heart says no, can be applied widely. But in more surprising ways than you might imagine.

Being positive but meaning negative

  1. ‘I will see.’ / ‘If I have the time I will come!’ There are the standard instances when you ask someone to do something, go somewhere with you, participate in something and the other’s response can vary. Furthermore, these kind of propositions and answers can be held in forehand, or a few hours before the event itself. See my Dutch post on time for more background.
  2. ‘Let us meet (soon)!’ Is this ever meant though? The digital equivalent in China is adding someone on WeChat and instantly forgetting about her/him. Like, only receiving the standard ‘I added you, we can now start chatting!’ and not even moving beyond that.
  3. ‘Please do everything in your own tempo.’ Whether it is study or sport or anything you are trying to master, your tempo had better match the class’s or teacher’s. For sports, feel free to reach as far as you think is anatomically possible. We will push, pull and lie on you to get you further. Read my Dutch article on sports in China for more enlightenment.

Being negative but meaning positive

  1. ‘You do not need to bring anything.’ Actually, I have never been in the situation where I really did not bring anything. The advantage is that you do not need to bring a highly personalized gift. Food or drinks are usually appreciated. Often accompanied by a ‘You should really not have done that.’ while handily storing it in the cupboard.
  2. ‘Your English seems to have become worse.’ A friend of mine was told this by a Chinese friend of hers. Mind you, jokingly. The Chinese are often full of these contradictions, seemingly to inform you: ‘I know you well and have high expectations of you / know you can do better, which I express in this way.’
  3. ‘It will not be long.’ If it is anything related to food and drinking, this is a blatant lie. If it has anything to do with a bank, hospital or police station, this is also a blatant lie. If it has to do with meeting again, this can be a blatant lie. Or they start stalking you.

What to do?

Since this is an era of typing instead of writing, I sit behind my computer desk with not an exactly blank screen, but getting close. What to write about today? Actually, I have no idea. Or I actually have a bit too many ideas. That is okay, it is how I spend most of my life. Not actually knowing what to do.

Is that a bad thing? Well, in this day and age where we can plan everything, most people seem to want to have more surprise and wonder in their life. For the Chinese, this feeling seems to be less prominent, probably because people think more short-term (see my previous Dutch post on this topic). Furthermore, moving to a different country is quite a good measure to experience more wonder and amazement. What makes it even more fun, is that in my case it is mutual.

Whenever I exchange more than 3 sentences with a Chinese person, it goes something like this:

/Hi, you are Chinese?

\I count as a foreigner I guess…

/Are you from Hong Kong or Taiwan?

\No, I am not. Do another guess.

/Japan? Korea? Vietnam?

\No I am from Europe, from the Netherlands.

/Really? You do not look Dutch at all!

\Well… Actually I was born in China.

/So your parents are Chinese?

\No, my parents are Dutch.

/But do you speak Chinese at home?

\No, my parents are Dutch.

/Are your parents in China?

\No, my parents are in the Netherlands.

/Is your family in China?

\No, my family is Dutch and in China.

/But you are Chinese.

\No, I am Dutch.

/But you speak Chinese.

\Well, I studied it for more than 5 years so yes.

/Do you speak Chinese with your parents?

\No, they are Dutch.

/But it is great that you returned to China and speak Chinese now! You are Chinese from the inside after all.

\Uhm… No not really though…

So what does this tell us?

  1. Chinese automatically assume everyone who looks like them to probably be like them. Sort of like the opposite of what we have in the Netherlands, where everyone who looks different is assumed to probably be a foreigner.
  2. It is difficult for both parties to grasp each other’s world views and background. How is a Chinese-looking person not identifying as Chinese and not knowing all the Chinese poems and songs? How do the Chinese not see and realize I am not a Chinese person and am quite different from them, more so inside than outside though?
  3. In China, I am seen as a Chinese which I am not. In the Netherlands, I am seen as a foreigner which I am not.

Enough everyday wonder and amazement for me while living in China. You should try it too, honestly I can only recommend it.

It is the second new year of the year!

Living in China has its advantages. You can eat 24 hours a day, you can cycle pretty much wherever you want, you can spit on the streets or pretty much everywhere (not that I do so of course, I am a proper educated lady) and you get to celebrate new year twice!

Granted, the first new year celebrations are quite anticlimactic. People do wish each other happy new year, there are parties, drinks and get-togethers but it is not the same. There are no fireworks, many people simply go to bed before 12 and the atmosphere is not there. No holidays, tomorrow is just another day, except with a few number changes.

For the real festivities, you need to look at the Lunar New Year (based on the Lunar calendar, of which I do not understand anything either). It generally takes place somewhere end of January-end of February-ish (wish it was one month!) and lasts about 7-10 days officially.

So what happens? The usual, millions of people are on the move, villages are (or should be) flooded with people, an amount of food and alcohol is consumed that reaches to the heaven, praying to the heavens by going to the temple, general happiness, joy and good quality family time (possibly with the added bonus of being pressured by family members to settle and get married).

You probably get the general idea, but how does it actually feel? I have no clue. I have no Chinese family I know and the previous times with Chinese New Year I was on an airport in Shenzhen (watching the KFC employees having hotpot at around 3AM and contemplating who had the saddest New Year) and afterwards in Taiwan (where there were temple festivities, but also mainly very quiet); and last year I was in Japan where I did go to Yokohama (the Chinatown of Tokyo so to say) but it is of course not the same. Oh yeah, and Chinese New Year celebrations in the Netherlands, which enlightened me that this existed at all.

But this year is different! I will be in Beijing! what to expect? Well, eating and making dumplings, most things in general to be closed, very empty streets, hopefully some fresh air, half the days off that the usual Chinese get (although we do not have to compensate) and a lot of noise (so perhaps a stressed kitten will get added to the mix). I actually thought of making new year’s resolutions again this morning. But then I did not really make any for the Western new year either. Except subconsciously to really stop with biting my nails (improving!), to write more (improving!) and to stay positive (improving!).

So I guess the only thing left to write is ‘Happy New Year!’ and keep on going in the year of the rooster!

Film rewriting: Kubo and the Two Strings

So to be a bit more accessible, let’s add some English to this game!

Last weekend, I went to the movies with a friend and (sort of) by coincidence we saw Kubo and the Two Strings. Without actually knowing it either, it was a beautiful stop-motion movie where you could easily lose yourself in its visuals.

But then the story. It was not that it was terrible, not by all means. But I always keep wondering how they manage to keep these tales so predictable. Being an instantly obsessed millennial internet user, I dove right into the IMDB and review pages. Having read a few reviews, it got me thinking that it would be interesting to see how the story could be changed to follow a more original, possibly more interesting, path.

Let’s take a look at the basic storyline below:

“Kubo and the Two Strings is an epic action-adventure set in a fantastical Japan from acclaimed animation studio LAIKA. Clever, kindhearted Kubo ekes out a humble living, telling stories to the people of his seaside town including Hosato, Akihiro, and Kameyo.”

“But his relatively quiet existence is shattered when he accidentally summons a spirit from his past which storms down from the heavens to enforce an age-old vendetta. Now on the run, Kubo joins forces with Monkey and Beetle, and sets out on a thrilling quest to save his family and solve the mystery of his fallen father, the greatest samurai warrior the world has ever known.”

“With the help of his shamisen – a magical musical instrument – Kubo must battle gods and monsters, including the vengeful Moon King and the evil twin Sisters, to unlock the secret of his legacy, reunite his family, and fulfill his heroic destiny.”

Source: Rotten Tomatoes

In one of the reviews I read online, it was mentioned that the hero himself did not have a lot of doubts regarding his fate/travel/destiny. Another thing, that often seems to be the case in these kinds of stories, is the underdevelopment of the villains. They just exist without a background or any other motivation besides being bad(ass). Sounds like a simple way of living, but one that does not incite a lot of recognition. Additionally, I was initially a bit confused with the role of the mother, especially since (spoiler!) she goes from a mentally unstable person to a wise and protective monkey.

So what to do? I propose some simple editing of crucial story elements (spoilers!):

  1. Can we have the mother act a bit more lucid in the scenes where she is not a monkey? Just so it feels more natural once she actually becomes the monkey. That would be very helpful to our audience.
  2. The start of Kubo’s journey starts because he stays outside after dark and can thus be found by the bad peeps. Can we have a better motivation for Kubo to stay outside other than that he somehow does not manage to run the whole way back in one sequence because he just needs to be slow once?
  3. Can we get a look at what Heaven looks like? What is the reason for people in Heaven to be so cold and evil? That is not what I have learned before!
  4. There is no moment of inner turmoil. This guy has his mother turned into a monkey, a beetle as his additional travel companion, is chased by people descended from heaven and has both his parents dying at the same time. How is he keeping his stuff together? Please enlighten me!
  5. Why is there a semi-happy ending with the entire family (even though the parents are in some sort of spirit-form)? Please do not end this movie in such a cheesy way.

Sounds great huh? Now to find some people to shoot this thing again in like 100.000 frames since it is stop-motion. Oh well, it is all about the ideas right?