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.

Animated Animals: birds of a feather talk together

Outdoors, nothing is as easy as it once seemed. There are decibel meters everywhere. It is finally more acceptable to stare at your phone all the time, since it is safer to chat with each other digitally.

However, especially in China many pets and birds in particular serve a distinct social function. These birds of course learn to talk and twitter away quite literally, which is fine as long as they are confined. Some do escape however, which created pockets in the wild where it is allowed to talk out loud.

So after your first work day, you decide to go to such a park. It is so quiet on the streets these days, it is unsettling. At the entrance of the park, there is a large map marking spots where talking is allowed. Another sign reminds you that there are decibel meters and cameras recording, so anyone talking too loudly in any other parts will be fined.

Passing the gates, you follow the path. There are still people dancing and elderly men intensively playing chess. You hear a bunch of different sounds coming from those crowds. Apparently, people have found new ways of communicating, either with clapping in morse, which works especially well if you are trying to make a point while playing chess or dancing the flamenco.

You walk on and arrive at a fork in the road. The path leading to the talking zone, leads into a dense forest. Once you enter it, you suddenly hear something that is quite overwhelming. Everyone is talking. Conversations are being had. People and birds laugh en get merry.

There are some cameras in between the trees, and all the birds are on leashes. This spot is specifically meant to only have birds. After some talks, the others tell you all outside spots are separated as much as possible. Also, everyone needs an outdoors license to be sure only well-behaved pets are taken outdoors.

After taking a look around, you sit down next to an older man who is having an animated conversation with his parakeet. “So today’s grains where definitely not the most tasty you say?” “Nope,” the bird answers “They just come out whole. It is terrible.”

“Do you have a special diet?” You chime in. The bird tilts his head and makes a sound like a sigh. “I just have an incredibly sensitive stomach. You know how some within our bird family will just eat anything of the street? I am not like that. I have standards.” The man scratches the bird’s head. “I have a little side business in luxury bird feed now. We are crossing boundaries.”

“Crossing boundaries,” you think. Would there be any spots where these talking animals meet?

Animated Animals: what the duck?

I was traveling a few weeks ago and while climbing a mountain, I suddenly thought: “What if animals could talk? Surely it would make mountains and forests a much less quiet place.” I also just remembered seeing the headline somewhere that currently most ducks for Chinese dishes are imported from Great Britain. So combining the 2, I imagine it would end up something like this…

It is the same as with humans. If you do not talk to them, they do not learn to speak. Since animals are now able of learning human languages, there have been many new rules, especially at farms and outdoors areas. Everyone there needs to use sign language, to preserve some quietness and order. Sure, monkeys may be able to catch onto that, but that conveniently also scales back the amount of zoos.

So, one day you saw an add for a Business Development Manager at a Duck Farm. Such positions are now very unpopular, due to moral considerations. However, that makes for little competition, so you decide to give it a try.

“English is the main language for this task.” Your supervisor says. “We import most of the ducks, so we need fluent speakers. We also have a few English major students interning for us.” No wonder that the level of English suddenly became much higher in China. There are that many more opportunities to practice, although you doubt how in-depth these conversations could go.

“It is no option to let them handle everything by themselves under human supervision?” You ask. Your supervisor shakes his head. “Only some are well-educated enough to communicate with us. Being able to talk does not mean they have consciousness, and many conditions in large-scale facilities are still quite apalling. If you let ducks talk to each other, they will quickly veer off-topic and start complaining about putting on weight, dirty feathers and swollen feet. And in the end, most ducks are slaughtered of course.”

With that in mind, you start working and calling. “Donny speaking here, how can I help you.” You wonder what it looks like on the other side. Is the duck in an office? Is the phone strapped to his body? Is there a human supervising him? After exchanging some polite conversation, you discuss the quality of the newest batch, transport, logistics and some other business.

With the work part of the conversation coming to an end, you decide to delve a little bit deeper. “Donny, does it feel at all strange to be part of this?”

You hear a sigh, obviously you are not the first one asking these questions. “Well, it is certainly a limited life of course. If I could fly and feel fine, I would but our bodies simply are not built like that. In the meantime, instead of just eating all day, it is nice to get a break from that by talking to you guys.”

Truth be told, you never gave a thought about career choices for ducks. “So is it tough to learn how to do this?”

“Nah, not really. We have scripts and cards, so that is the easy part. Also for off-topic conversations, we have a lot of practice. But I imagine that our counterparts living in the wild have some more variety. Stories of the black market do trickle down here, with some of us selling inside knowledge, stuff like that. Another reason not to keep us alive for too long.”

“You can just straight up tell me that?” You ask in amazement.

Donny has a short laugh. “Well, by now it is common knowledge. You guys cannot keep us apart anyway, so there is bound to be some of us able to get away. Anyhow, my feet are hurting so I am hanging up. Looking forward to be in touch again!”

A click and he is gone. You have quite a lot to think about now and decide to go for a stroll. Perhaps that will take your mind off of things.

How much is in this?

Ready-made meals. In the Netherlands I could take pride in the fact I most often cooked myself. Now that I am too lazy, I can still say most food is sort of home-made. Or at least prepared in a kitchen?

This is of course not the whole story. I have recently started reading a book which does give more of an idea of the whole story. Of course most people with a marginal interest in food, would only deem it natural about half of the time. Especially if you see what is dished up on this side of the world.

China is a country with a long culinary history, like many Asian countries. However, the fact that there are really well-prepared, exquisitely flavored and beautifully presented dishes, does not mean you see them daily. In fact, it is quite funny that most restaurants use menus with pictures in them. The food is bound to disappoint in one way or another.

Balance is a delicate thing, and something that a lot of the things you might order in China are devoid of. Especially the Northeast region is famous for its large, heavily flavored dishes. Too salty, too sour, too sweet and too much. Order a drink in any cafe (whose service might vary, as described earlier) and it will be heavy on the sugar. Although I love my hot morning breakfasts, they are definitely not light. Fried, with a few heavy sweeps of soy sauce marinade and spicy peppers.

So the disbalance that I sometimes experience daily here, is definitely one of the reasons for doing a bit more sports. It is kind of paradoxical that on the one hand I eat more varied here, since I could not be bothered to make many of the dishes I eat myself, but not necessarily healthier. Whereas in the Netherlands you can feel a bit more controlled over your sugar intake for instance, that is almost impossible here. I have even heard people complaining that the toothpaste is too sweet. Sweet tooth would be the perfect brand name for that one!

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 until a certain degree. The Netherlands and other northern European countries are at 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 then 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.

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!

Guidelines for working in a Chinese Japanese restaurant

Welcome, glad to have you with us!

Please view below steps for proper conduct at our Chinese Japanese restaurant.

Terms: Chinese Japanese restaurant, a.k.a. a Japanese restaurant in China, not a Chinese-Japanese restaurant. You know right?

Positions these guidelines apply to: Waiter/waitress

Please follow the rules mentioned below. It is of utmost importance to follow these guidelines exactly as they are written!

  1. When a customer (but honestly anyone) enters, be sure to say ‘WELCOME’ in Japanese (Irasshaimase (いらっしゃいませ) ). However, to not let customers be confused that they are in Japan, two important rules must be followed.
    a. Be sure to pronounce Welcome unclearly and incorrect. ‘WECO’, ‘WLCM’, ‘WLECMOE’ are all acceptable. In (Chinese) Japanese it should sound something like ‘Ilashaima’, ‘Irashamse’, ‘Irashase’.
    b. Volume is more important than looks. So be sure to say it in a loud voice (scream if necessary), then you can have any expression on your face that you would like.
  2. Once a customer has entered, be sure that at least two of you talk to her/him.
  3. Guide the customer to a seat first. If the customer is hesitant to sit down on the spot, mention that any of the available seats can actually be taken. If necessary, walk around for a few minutes.
  4. When the customer is seated, be sure to look at her/him for a period of time until it gets awkward. Wait with going away anyway until the customer says you can do so.
  5. If the customer wants to order, be sure to avoid her/his gaze for a while. You might want to chat with your colleagues (of whom at least two should be free at the same time), look at your phone, clean a specific spot with a dirty cloth etc. to make sure you are not looking at her/him immediately. When you are ready, go to the customer for her/his order.
  6. While food is being prepared for the customer, feel free to loiter around, chat with colleagues, look at your phone or pick your nose. For the last activity, try to make sure as much as possible that nobody sees you. If they do, wipe it on your clothes.
  7. Once food is there, be sure to help the customer eat it (mix food, turn food, cut food, put on a stove etc.) so that you do not have nothing to do all the time.
  8. When the customer wants to pay, make sure there is another colleague at the cash desk, so she/he has something to do as well.
  9. As the customer is leaving, scream/shout something like ‘TNAK YO’ or ‘ALIAGTO GOSAIMA’.

If you follow all of these rules, you should be able to deliver service perfectly compliant with our standards. And remember the most important rule of all:

We are a Japanese restaurant in China. We do not solely copy, but add our own Chinese flavor to the service. That is what makes us special.