Losing your way around

A few weeks ago, when I was still allowed to walk around freely, I found myself in an unfamiliar city with some time to kill. I knew the fastest way to walk from my current spot to the train station, but decided against it since it was nice weather and I would not have anything to do at the train station anyway. So taking my time, I strolled through some typical Dutch neighborhoods and made a detour to the old city center as well, making sure not to stray too far from my goal. It worked out well.

I tend to do this quite often, but realized that the reason it went well, is because I did it in a relatively small city (the Netherlands is small after all). When I lived in Beijing and Shanghai, I sometimes did the same. I would be done with work or returning from my sports studio and wanting to make life a bit more exciting, decide to do a detour.

The good thing about biking, is that you can more easily go further distances, even if your route turns out to be a bit longer than expected. The bad thing about biking is that I tend to do it at high-speed, which means I need to cover more distance if I take a wrong turn.

And the other disadvantage of big Chinese cities, is that many spots tend to look very much alike. Those cute hutongs and charming alleys? Very nice to wander for a while, but once you decide you want to now go straight home, it may not be that straight. The big boulevards and ring roads? There are so many of them, and most of them are dotted with similarly huge shopping centers and government buildings. You only end up knowing if you went wrong, once you notice the name of a subway stop which you did not expect to see at all. Which is not be close to where you need to be at all.

So that is how I spent a lot of time in China, lost on a bike. It will probably continue once I move to a bigger city here again. Something else to look forward to I guess.

We are family~

So right now I am living the #familylife. Not that I have a husband and child of my own (even though all Chinese insisted I really needed to have one in the past few years) but I am back to basics. Living in with my parents again to be precise.

It’s special times and those mean special situations. Having moved back with my parents (right before I am turning 30) makes me slightly concerned, but at the same time it seems to be the perfect time to do so. A few days ago, my mom literally said: “You are now living the life you wanted to live when you were going to university.” I would have liked to stay with my parents longer when I was younger, but needed to move out for my studies. Guess I am able to catch up now.

The main thing about living with my parents, is that it is very different from how I know many Chinese arrange it. I cook myself (my mom being amazed all the time that I can still do it even with all those years of eating out), fold laundry, organize our pantries and I can even make money by doing some chores (throwback to 16-year old me).

As I have heard and seen from situations where my Chinese friends live together with their parents, it is the kind of situation that would drive me crazy. Parents who clean up after you, cook for you, fold your laundry, worry all the time about of for you and have their own private places.

I understand the ideas behind it, you are there for each other and want to make each other happy, but I am very glad that I can live together with my parents in our own way. We all have our own spot in the house, but these are interchangeable (my dad complained that his computer seat was too low all the time because I am sitting behind his desk) and we cooperate pretty nicely for the cleaning, cooking and other chores.

It is kind of like those great roommates that you see in tv series. They fully understand me, but we all have our own lives. I could join their hobbies (sports and chopping wood), ask them for advice and discuss how the world’s going down right now. Furthermore, they do have a fabulous house (if I may say so myself) and I do not pay any rent.

So if this is what it is going to be, I would almost rethink moving out. Almost.

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.

Why watching TV shows is tiring

So I was staying at a friend’s place for a week while visiting Beijing. She has her TV linked up with the Youku (local YouTube) app, which means she can stream anything that is on there on her TV.

My own TV mainly functions as a washing/clothing rack and card stand, so it was nice to actually watch something on it. I always aim or have the intention to watch more TV or TV shows, yes the stuff that all kids dream about, because listening more to Chinese people talking never hurts.

There is only 1 problem that I established early on: TV shows wear me out.

I remember watching TV shows when I was younger and getting increasingly frustrated and irritated by them as I watched them more regularly. The way that everything is drawn out, the staging of certain emotions and the second-hand embarrassment of some things that are being said. These points all play out the same when I watch a Chinese TV show.

Sure, I pick up some new words or neat way to say things. But the texts are equally overwrought, the acting as overdone and the cliches largely the same. Moreover, Chinese TV shows, especially those involving competition, always emphasize the humility of their participants. They have superhuman discipline, need to hammer down that they had a lot of help getting where they are now and how proud they are of being Chinese.

This is to say that for me, watching a TV show is almost equally unattractive as just regular studying. I remember being on exchange in China and once having the chance to be audience member to a, to be honest, quite boring TV program.

I almost fell asleep. Literally.

I never watched that show, obviously.

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.

Waiting for a rainy day

Rain brings out something fascinating. Suddenly, the streets are filled with even more colors than usual, everyone has some sort of protection which ranges from the practical, umbrellas, to the ridiculous, plastic shoe covers.

It rains a lot in Shanghai. I am sort of used to a lot of rain from living in the Netherlands, but that does not make it any more fun most of the time. However, some things make the situation different here.

I do not really bike with an umbrella here, mostly because it is a lot busier and chaotic on the roads. The biking skills of the Chinese are quite limited, combined with wind (I have a friend who cannot even hold an umbrella against the wind when walking. You know who you are) does not make for very favorable circumstances to bike with an umbrella in.

Moreover, rain ponchos are very popular here. Ranging from plainly colored, hip and with patterns to the cheapest plastic ones which make you look like an ad hoc performance art project.

But the rain poncho is not the only fashionable item that became a business project for rainy days, shoes and boots are highly diverse here as well. It ranges from the lower, watershoe-like model that reminds me of my youth, to heeled short booths in all colors of the rainbow, normal height rain boots and knee-high horseriding-like ones. And the most recent incarnation seems to be plastic shoe covers which should still ‘show off your impeccable sense of fashion’.

So rainy days make for some of the most fashionable ones over here. Such diversity does make those days a bit better.

In or out of touch with nature?

Today, the weather is great. Blue skies, sun shining, slight breeze, clouds drifting, clean air. About as perfect a day you can get in China, which means everyone is on the move of course. That is perfectly understandable, possible even desirable. There is limited room for outdoors activities on a daily basis and having other people in the park besides the elderly is a nice change of scenery.

The park is most probably the closest to nature that most Chinese get. Camping is not a very common way of traveling around, forests are mostly limited to national parks and most animals are still perceived as a main source of food.

In the Netherlands, there also has been increasing discussions if people, and children in particular, are not too out of touch with nature? Do we still understand milk does not come from a carton and that we only eat a small part of most vegetables?

On the one hand, what might help in China is that at least dead animals are quite common. With chicken feet, pig’s knuckles and ears, gutted fish, and intestines all being sold en plein public at most local markets, these images will not be very shocking and it helps making clear what you are eating.

At the same time, the Chinese are pretty ignorant to nature in most instances. Littering, pulling on trees to have flower petals or red leaves fall down on them, building bridges or elevators in the mountains without any regard for the surroundings, etc.

But, one thing that I do envy their ignorance for, is for most pests and insects. I do not think the day can ever come that I do not shriek and shirk away whenever seeing a cockroach. Having the kind of immunity that the Chinese and most other Asians inhabit towards cockroaches is something I thoroughly lack. Solid proof that nature provides some things you should nurture.

Stellar sales techniques

I am no sales person. To be honest, I did some minor sales-involved tasks during my (side) jobs and they all gave me anxiety. The fact that I do not have any talent for bluffing does not help either.

That does not mean I cannot recognize good from bad sales though. China, for all its lack of service does have a very well-developed sales culture. Up ’till a certain point.

Realtor employees try to hand you out flyers for any overpriced apartments they sell on any corner of the street. Enter a shopping mall and you are sure to be approached by a friendly lady who will fix your brows. Take the escalator at a subway station and there will be a (often not so) fit guy waiting to get you into the next gym as fast as possible.

Talking about this last one, a few weeks ago was actually the first time a friend and I took the guy up on his offer. Wanting to go to another gym which turned out to be closed, something that also happens often without any warning in China, we decided to see how free this free trial would be.

After a thorough workout (thanks friend!), we took a shower, picked up our stuff and handed in our locker keys. Not wanting to waste this grand opportunity, the girl behind the counter urged us to not leave yet. Being the nice people we are, we decided to wait it out and politely decline any sales pitch that would follow.

A sales guy came out, one of the not so fit ones, and he started directly throwing all kinds of things at us: “We have very new equipment. You should definitely get your membership here. Do you know our prices?” Decidedly, my friend and I pretended to be looking around and mentioned wanting to check out some other gym facilities and prices. “But do you know our prices?” The guy urged again. My friend and I shared a brief, suspicious glance and I said: “Yeah, we have looked on your website what it said.” Without any hesitation, the answer was, “No no, those prices are not correct. Do you know our real prices?”

I almost thought that the manager would come and throw him out immediately. I could imagine people in the Netherlands being like, “Why are spreading false information about your service? I do not do business with liars, get out of my face!” It is interesting how different people handle these things. I think in general Chinese sales people just tend to throw out everything and then see if something sticks. And apparently, this guy thought pricing would be the real money deal.

Welp, it was not. After hearing it was 7.000 RMB that did not raise our interest. It is tough being in sales.

This is sick!

Actually, in Dutch we can also use the word ‘sick’ as a positive adverb. Once you are sick, it feels quite illogical to use it in that sense.

For me, being sick abroad is almost my second nature. I must have seen almost as many doctors and hospitals in my country as I have abroad. I must emphasize that in the Netherlands, going to the doctor or hospital is taken up as a more drastic measure. if you have a cold, the flu, or are just not feeling well, we might go to the GP but normally we just suck it up and huddle up in a blanket. As a consequence, most of our conversations about feeling sick are relatively low-profile. ‘I am not feeling very well.’ ‘Something’s been in the air lately so I think I caught that too.’ ‘My whole body feels listless, I need a good rest.’

In China, that is quite different. On the one hand, the chances of having food poisoning and/or diarrhea are much larger here. Therefore, you might just hear somebody say very casually: ‘That hotpot did not go well, I had diarrhea for 3 days.’ The dutch, not the most prudish but still, would feel a bit uncomfortable directly stating that in a casual conversation. The same goes for constipation.

Another difference, is the amount of medicine. I now happen to have a cough and a cold which has already kept me in the cough-sneeze-breathe state for almost a week. Almost all Chinese will ask me if I have taken any medicine, and if so Chinese or Western medicine. In the Netherlands, we almost tend to pride ourselves on our ‘toughness’ and ability to bear sicknesses without any medicines.

I do have a feeling in China apothecaries and/or doctors still receive commission over medicines. I recently was in the hospital for someone else who had a hole in his head and he received four different medicines for the next 4 or 5 days. It seemed like a bit of overkill. I had the same when I had ‘a simple’ pharyngitis and also received about 5 different medicines.

However, sticking to my Dutch roots and trying to survive on as less medicines as possible is also quite a challenge. But who does not like a challenge?

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.