Daily tidbits: Not sharing is caring

Today I remembered to finally eat my last orange. Right before I headed out the door for a precious meeting with another human being in real life, I opened my cabinet and put the orange in my sweater’s pouch. Even though I had told it to become orange, there was some green to it, but the texture said ‘eat me before it is too late’ so I brought it.

Oranges are not really my favorite kind of fruit, but I feel they are a bit more reliable in taste than apples. I cannot say how much disappointment I have had whenever buying apples and having a soft, mushy one instead of a crisp bite. I must say I did not have this problem in China, since they had a few kinds of apples that were bound to be crispy, so another thing to miss as I moved.

I tried to see if I could start the peel by using my non-existent nail, which failed as foreseen. So just as I was biting into the orange, my friend arrived. In that split second I thought, “I probably cannot offer him a piece anymore now”. And when we sat down and I was ready to take my first piece, I hesitated for a second before eating the whole thing myself.

Now I grew up in a situation where I was often hungry and not with people who had anything on them (or were even contemplating someone to get hungry). And I am now conditioned to share anything with friends, even if it is just a cookie, since almost all are so kind to do that with me. So I felt like a real, egoistic only child eating this fruit and not having offered the other one a share.

This made me think about the way we share food here and what I was used to doing in China. In China, food is everywhere, at anytime and most importantly widely shared. Sometimes I did not dare look at anything edible, lest I would be confronted with the question: “wanna have some?” Of course, this is a first-world problem, an issue I would love to have in my life again.

But for now, I think the current pandemic gives us a great excuse to not share food (as much) and to be a bit more egoistic. As long as we still care of course.

China: an olfactory journey

I read an article today about our sense of smell and how it is generally undervalued. Mentioned briefly, but not expanded upon is the fact that smell plays a bigger role in non-Western cultures. I immediately was reminded of China, which is truly a country to be experienced by all 5 (or 6 if you have them) senses. A day experienced through the nose would be something like this:

Breakfast
About 50% if not more of Chinese eat their breakfast outside. Especially if you have gruelling 996 working hours, but that is something to discuss in more detail another time. You can find the food by smelling it. The small food carts and stalls where jianbing, youtiao and baozi are fried and steamed right in front of you. Even if you have had something at home, you may grab something extra, just because it smells so good.

Morning at the office
Because so many people get their breakfast on the way to the office, in the morning it is often a combination of different foods, hanging in the air. Combined with the damp office where everyone is inside most of the time and not always a window open because of pollution outside, this can be a less fun olfactory experience though.

Lunch
Just as you’re starting to smell the warmed up, home-cooked meals of your colleagues, you can often slip outside with some others to go lunch at a restaurant. A restaurant always has a strong smell of something being prepared, some spices hanging in the air if it is a good one.

Afternoon shopping
I do not know how they do it, but many shopping malls have the same smell. It is a slightly sweet smell, mixed with cleaning products and makes every mall you enter vaguely familiar. Maybe you will get something sweet, almost all cafes have a flowery, sweet scent that makes your teeth ache without eating their cakes. Looking for a toilet? You will smell it before seeing it, which is not always a good thing of course.

Grocery shopping
Many groceries can be bought at wet markets, but even super markets often have a ‘fresh’ section. This means that there will be many fishy, meaty and fruity smells pointing you to the right aisles. And for good measure, if you do not have the time to cook yourself, you will undoubtedly smell the oil and garlic of the instant-cooking section where you can get a snack or dish fully prepared to take away.

Dinner
Garlic, ginger and oil. Many Chinese dishes require a combination of these 3, and plenty of other spices and sauces of course, promising to have your kitchen smelling fantastic (if it all goes well) and your stove a mess. If successful, Chinese food is the kind where everyone will be taking a few deep sniffs of every dish before actually eating it.

An incomplete list of things that the whole world shares during celebrations

It is the first day of the year of the ox. It is also Carnaval in catholic parts or Northwest Europe. And of course Valentine’s Day is coming up. I was just thinking about the ways everyone celebrates differently, but some things keep coming back. An incomplete list:

  1. Good food. I was talking about this a while back with friends and we determined that the one holiday in China which does not heavily involve food is probably Tomb Sweeping Day. Judging by the name you can probably guess why. That said, most other celebrations are mainly about the food, and the same actually counts for many Western holidays. Truth be told, chocolate eggs do not make me drool as much as mooncakes or zongzi, but I will take what I can get now.
  2. Family fights. I talked more about this in this blog. One of the best New Year’s stories I have.
  3. Family reunions. We know we will fight and have to listen to aunts and uncles complaining about everything, including our own accomplishments, but we always suck it up and just do it. It is funny how much of a change blood and the knowledge that it only happens once a year makes for our toleration of others.
  4. Decorations. I like decorating as much as everyone else, but if you really think about it does not make any sense. Why do we have all this stuff which we show to everyone once a year, but it inappropriate the rest of the year. I actually do get those Chinese Christmas stickers that are not removed.
  5. Annoying kids.
  6. Unrealistic ads.
  7. Unrealistic expectations.
  8. Dressing up.
  9. Travelling distances to gather. I am lucky to not have had the need or space within the country to travel very far, but it happens. On a large scale. Voluntarily.

If you think about it, we are all united in making it hard for ourselves during a time we are supposed to relax and enjoy. We not only pressure ourselves, but also each other to be happy about situations we normally would not put ourselves in. That is a universal holiday message.

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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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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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 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.