Chronicling my Saint Nicholas experience because I can pt. 2

How to replace one kind of fun with a different one, but then it keeps on changing.

Young adulthood Saint Nicholas – Now you need to actually put in some effort yourself

The good:

Finally you take the reins. Saint Nicholas is something you not only celebrate with family anymore but your friends get involved. You get double the fun and may actually start to recreate some of the excitement. Of course part of the fun is getting some weird gifts that you do not need. All those times your family did not give you all those useless things, your friends are sure to help you with that. And so long as you do not every year get the excuse “I really had no time to make something better” accompanied by a raffle box, there should definitely be some memorable unpacking moments that will be commented upon for years after.

The bad:

Transitioning into adulthood is just hard, period. There is so much disappointment hiding behind each corner and the same counts for celebrating anything with friends. If you do not have too many people complaining about their inability to write poems, then you may be limited by your own crafting skills. If it is not your own crafting skills, there are bound to be some others who just do not prioritize this highlight of the year. And finally, life tends to get in the way of these celebrations and you may need to start planning 3 months on forehand, only to have to then cancel it a week on forehand because nobody has the time or energy for it.

Saint Nicholas abroad – A lesson in Dutch culture

The good:

This is the moment for Dutch culture to shine! Forget about the fact that we do not really have any food culture or a national dance. You finally get to tell about this very peculiar and special Dutch tradition. It is all good fun and you get to show others something completely new. Experiencing familiar things in a completely new situation will most definitely also get you to appreciate everything again. Yes it was loads of fun as a kid and no it is completely different from Santa Claus. The commercialization and merchandise of Saint Nicholas will seem far more benign in your head, especially because Christmas is just decorations in many non-Western countries.

You can have fun finding out if you can make some of the snacks yourself, or where to buy them, or strategically ask someone early enough but not too early to bring or send them. You will appreciate even the most basic of snacks, and may point at every chimney to remind everyone that they missed out on something great. Those poor kids.

The bad:

Foreigners will interpret everything differently. It is the moment that you will take off the rose-tinted glasses and suddenly be presented with knowledge about certain aspects you were ignorant about as a kid. You suddenly realize things are not as natural as they seemed to you. How black does one get by coming through the chimney? Why did we once think it was unproblematic to paint our faces that color and put on these wigs? And why is it always white old men bringing around these gifts and showing off their benevolence? Most importantly, the horse would explode if it ate all of the hay and carrots kids put in their boots.

And once the scales fall from your eyes, it is easy to see how much hubris is left now. There is police regularly for a children’s celebration and families can get split over such a logical development. And once you start comparing your own celebrations with those in other countries, they may seem not seem so magical anymore. Why do we not have moon bunnies that make rice cakes? Or have a selfish trickster in the form of a spider?

Thus, there is nothing like a new perspective to make you realize traditions just do not make sense. And that even though they change, it only makes it more difficult to explain to others. But that is part of the process and keeping it alive.

So is real adulthood going to ruin this even more? Probably yes. Maybe not.

Chronicling my Saint Nicholas experience because I can pt. 1

One of the few celebrations that is very special to the Netherlands. It has snacks, songs and of course gifts. But like all things that define your childhood, it changes. In most of my adult life, there has definitely been a place for Saint Nicholas and it still has a reservation. So on this festive day, I wanted to put down some of my thoughts and nostalgia on the whole development. Because that is what your thirties are for.

The Saint Nicholas story in one sentence is: an old white man with a red robe and big book rides on the roofs on horseback with helpers to deliver gifts to all the good kids.

Childhood Saint Nicholas – Like a Christmas movie

The good:

Saint Nicholas felt more exciting than my birthday to be honest. Probably because there is at least 10-14 days of buildup towards it. And that is done by putting your shoe near the chimney, stuffing it with a carrot or hay, singing a song and then receiving a gift. In my never-up-before-9 childhood, this ritual was one of the few things that had me jumping on my parents’ bed.

Another thing I remember fondly is going through huge catalogues and looking at all the toys and stuff I might want. Thinking back that I got excited about furbies and toy dogs, makes me very happy that my parents were smart enough not to give me those things though.

The bad:

I was a firm believer in the existence of this mysterious man, mainly because of his horse. At the same time, I never liked the guys that dressed up like Saint Nicholas, especially if they did not wore a red robe or were on horseback. My parents also made the smart decision to skip the dress up part, so I did not suddenly recognize my dad’s or neighbor’s slippers.

There were always Saint Nicholas welcome parades and an actual news channel that starts about 3 weeks before the celebrations. I had zero interest in any of this, even though I accepted the tv Saint Nicholas as the REAL one. I always found it difficult to immerse myself in programs where real people played an, in my eyes then, fantastical role.

And although there are many good snacks for Saint Nicholas, I remember always getting the most basic ones at school. You had these disgustingly sweet chocolate mice and frogs, which apparently have always been factory produced. Then there were the peppernuts, which you can now get in at least 20 flavors, but was not as versatile then. Let me just say it, the basic ones are not all that good. Lastly, it was the so-called taaitaai which is actually tough twice in Dutch and describes the snack perfectly. It is tough, not all that sweet and tastes like something very calvinist, very simple and devoid of enjoyment.

Tween Saint Nicholas – A lesson in growing up

The good:

Many people have a certain moment of epiphany when they realized Saint Nicholas was not real. Some may even feel betrayed by parents and family to have been told this lie for years. That was not the case for me. I cannot really remember when I knew Saint Nicholas did not exist, but I do remember everyone else getting very persistent on this, especially from 10 onwards. Those who were believers got ridiculed for getting pulled the wool over their eyes, and not believing was something the cool kids did. And I did not understand this mentality. At all. So what I remember very clearly, is talking with my mom about this and telling her I just liked the idea. Why was the whole focus on immediately throwing out the whole idea and tradition? Just because it is not true, does not mean you cannot enjoy something right? She agreed and told me we could decide in our own family that Saint Nicholas exists and we ‘believe’ in him. And a few years later, in 2007 All is Love came out which voiced this exact idea in its intro. I never felt so validated.

You can finally buy all of the good snacks, or let your parents buy them.

The bad:

Just like with other celebrations that get less special as you age, Saint Nicholas loses a lot of its magic. It is not that it gets a lot less fun, just that it pales in comparison to what you used to feel. Even though you can still do everything, the excitement is gone. It does not come back, and that is something good to start learning early.

So what is Saint Nicholas like as a real adult? As you move abroad? As society changes? More to follow soon!

Old-school communication methods

Once in a while, when birthdays come up or the holidays, I think to myself: I should really write some cards and letters. I toy with this thought for too long to send it before the right occasion and then let it simmer for a while. Then, I am suddenly hit by a wave of motivation and start writing letters, folding origami, making use of all the paper I had bought for this purpose. But then I need to find the addresses, go to the post office to actually send it and then wait in agony for happy messages from my friends to old news. And oftentimes, I will send it 3 months after the first time I wrote the card or letter, so I add an addendum.

All in all, it is quite clear I like the idea of writing letters and cards more than actually doing it. At the same time, I do really enjoy the process, and especially in China and Asian countries there is a plethora of cute cards, stickers and letter paper to choose from.

I remember that before I went to China, I looked for letter paper in the Netherlands. When I was younger and pen friends were still a thing, there was a lot to choose from. Not anymore in like 2014. I held onto the few pieces of paper I had like they were treasures.

Then I moved to China, traveled to Japan, Taiwan and South-Korea and was overwhelmed by the choices available. I stocked up enough origami paper to last me 10 years, spent hours in stationery stores picking and choosing paper, bought packages of cute cards to send out.

I am now slowly making my way to actually using up all that stuff I bought at a whim. Once I put my mind to it and sent it all out, it is quite fulfilling. Even writing the stuff and reading back what I wrote if I am adding a letter is kind of fun. And it is basically the only reason I have to write Chinese by hand.

So anyway, I probably would not thrive in the real analog era, but pretending to be a ‘real’ writer from time to time works out fine.

I feel pretty

It is actually quite funny how I am basically called out either as ‘hey beauty’ or ‘hey auntie’ on the Chinese streets here.

In the Netherlands, we normally know that we are real adults once strangers start ‘Miss’ing’ you. “Dear Miss, you forgot this.” “Excuse me Miss, do you know the way?” “Miss, can I help you with something?”

Here in China, I had sort of the same feeling when I somewhat transcended seamlessly from ‘sister’ to ‘auntie’. A change that I am still not too happy about. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the ‘hey beauty’ (or ‘hey hunk’ for all those handsome boys out there) that I get called multiple times a day whenever I step a foot outside of my office. This might also tell you something about the office I work at and about my looks, but let us not go there for now.

Of course nobody on the streets means the description literally. It has gone so far that I do not think these terms are used to actually describe a beautiful girl or handsome boy anymore. Having kids and parents call me auntie, actually irritates me in 2 ways.

First, it of course makes me feel older. I already experienced this when my nieces and nephews got kids, most of them being around 5-7 years older than I, and realizing I was suddenly an aunt.

Second, I associate it with a certain familiarity or warmth that I do not possess. I think most aunties in stories are warm and forgiving. They are the surrogate mothers where kids can get candy and have fun and play. I do not have such feelings for random kids. At all.

At the same time, I am wondering where exactly the limit is when I will only get called auntie. Or perhaps there is a specific name they use for gorgeous 50+ year olds that I only know once I enter that club? One more thing to look forward to as  I get older.stock-rose-1525145_1920.jpg

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.

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?

Well, it is only the rule so…

I sometimes think that the expression “Rules are meant to be broken” comes from China. Even though there are many ways in which people listen or accept things at face value, there is certainly a lot of room for opposition as well.

Of course, this manifests in somewhat negative ways as well. Going off the beaten path in the mountains (although mother nature put this sign here urging you not to), shaking the trees for flowers or red leaves (ignoring another sign that says trees have feelings too) or simply squatting on the toilet seat (how do you do that anyway)?

But it also means that there is in a certain way more room for exploration. For example, if you are looking for a place and you are not sure if it is in this building, you can almost always enter it. It does not matter if the guard is awake (although oftentimes they are sleeping) they almost never ask questions. Once you are inside and realize within 5 minutes that you are not at the right place, nobody will even blink twice at you coming out again almost immediately.

Once you have mastered that stage, you can move on to the next: making your own rules. Everyone constantly is in a certain way just doing their own thing. Wearing whatever they want, setting up their street stall wherever they can, getting on the bus in the middle of an intersection or singing along very loudly on their bikes. It is almost mindful.

After that stage, there is only a final one left: blatantly ignoring the rules. It helps if you do not understand or can act as if you do not understand people talking to you. I once stopped sort of half-way on an intersection with a friend and pretended to not understand the traffic guy yelling at me to stand back. He gave up, muttering something about me being Thai. Or an alternative is directly talking to them in your own language and catching them off-guard that way. I have only done it once, but it is definitely one of my greatest achievements this year.

Oh, and it also works great to avoid agressive advertisers or people asking you the way. In general, it is a great way to not make any friends.

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.

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. 2

“Well,” I said to him “I am only renting this place so I will talk to the housing agency and let them get back to you.”

The guy stared at me blankly and replied gruffly: “Who are you renting this from?” I told him my agency’s name and he gave no sign of recognition at all. “Give me your landlord’s number, I will contact him directly.”

At this point I started to get a bit fed up with him. Mind you, it was not even 7.30 and I still had no leaking problem in my house. I think we went through multiple forms of the conversation above in the next 10 minutes, until I finally convinced him to leave his phone number so I could reach him.

I mentioned that things can move quick in China, and surely I had a repair guy ordered through the housing agency’s app by the next evening. However, when he came I of course had no problem at my side. After checking if the downstairs neighbors were at home, of course not, I called the management guy a few times. Finally he picked up and my repair guy talked to him in the same Shanghainese-tinted Mandarin about the matter.

“Your pipe from the washing machine is too small, it needs to be changed.” He asked if it would fit in my bathroom, which I assured him would be impossible unless I wanted not to take any showers or not go to the toilet anymore. He took a look at my kitchen to see if it would fit there and decided the plumbing was too weak and again there was not enough room. Finally, he looked outside my window in a pensive matter, took a couple of photos which he would send to the agency and left.

This situation as described in the above paragraph then happened at least 3 more times. I had multiple guys visiting me, not nearly as excited as it sounds of course, and all of them made pictures, told me the pipe needed to be changed, asked if it would fit in my bathroom or kitchen and then left without actually doing anything. I almost started to wish I would have become a repairwoman if I could do my work in this way.

And then the weekend came  around. I needed to do my laundry.