What is more valuable than gold in the Netherlands?

One can per customer per day

One can per customer per day

Holland is suffering under the weight of its own reputation as a paradise for lactose aficionados. Baby formula shortages have been causing screaming frenzies and fights in stores for several years now. While it is true that some people have been buying formula to “export” to China, it is totally confounding as to why producers have not been able to keep up with the demand. At supermarkets nationwide, Nutrilon-brand formulae are kept in tight security, next to the packs of cigarettes at customer service (!!). Nutrilon is now a rationed product – Asians pick them up under intense scrutiny.

Stores here have taken to discriminating against people of Oriental origin, deliberately targeting them as raiders of the lost ark. There have been discrimination suits leveled at retailers and yet the war goes on. At Kruidvat, you have employees refusing to sell milk to Chinese people, while across the street at De Bijenkorf, you have sharply suited employees hired for their Mandarin-speaking abilities. In short, they shun Chinese custom at the cheap and cheerful drugstore, while they pad the red carpet for Beijing busloads vis-a-vis haute couture.

On its way to sacred status in NL

On its way to sacred status in NL

Yesterday night, there was another burglary at Petit-Homme’s crèche, targeting the formula stock. The baddies made off with a heap of baby formula and other knick knacks like iPads and cash. It is almost as though we were living in a communist regime where the shortage of basic necessities leads to anarchy.

This is quite the problem for Dutch retailers yet it is a huge opportunity for producers and everyone else on the distribution chain to capitalize on torrential demand. It is hard to understand why people in this day and age are still fighting tooth and nail over milk.

Celebrating the Year of the Sheep in London

It has been a long time since I did anything properly familial despite Chinese New Year being the most important festival in Chinese culture. My friends and family who are scattered around the globe make fervent efforts to reunite with their parents and family-at-large, to the point where flights to the Orient around this time tend to get sold out pretty early on.

My parents are not as traditional in this respect. Over the years, life’s practicalities have taken precedence. Time and distance, coupled with all of their offspring rooting and re-rooting in different countries have allowed us only narrow wedges of precious moments together in a year.

Steamed Fish

Steamed Fish

With this mindset pervading my life in a suitcase, I was somewhat pleasantly surprised to discover that my elder sister insists on blowing the embers of family and cultural traditions back into life. This year, the stars aligned for us to have Chinese New Year’s dinner together in London, where both my sisters live. mix veg

Last night, my immediate family, (with parents guest appearance via Skype) sat down to a glorious home cooked feast. Petit-Homme’s flight arrived at London City Airport just in time for him to preside at the dinner table and gobble down a giant meatball (aka lion’s head). He seems to have enjoyed his first solo flight with Papa.

Shanghainese Lionshead

Shanghainese Lionshead

On the smorgasboard: sparerib soup, boiled chicken, lions head and cabbage (a gem handed down from my Shanghainese grandmother), stir fried assorted vegetables and mushrooms, steamed fish and chillies, with ice cream and rambutans for dessert. These are dishes that we enjoyed year after year in my maternal grandmother’s home. It’s hard to believe, but my sister accomplished all this single-handedly (not the type that seeks or relishes “help” in her kitchen kingdom.) in the span of one afternoon.

There is nothing better than the vivid tastes and smells of delicious food that makes us sift out the fond memories from the rest of the bundle that sometimes prefers to stay tightly knotted up. It allows us to create our own interpretations of life that is steeped in the lineage of people who mattered to us.

Social Habits That Lead to Charming Spectacles

I don’t think it will come as a surprise to any Chinese person to know that lots of us, more than any other ethnicity in the world, wear eyeglasses. I started wearing glasses at around 13, and that was pretty late compared to my classmates and siblings. I remember many of my friends starting at around 8 years. I have a friend in The Hague whose son is 5 and is already sporting the Harry Potter look. Back then, I too longed for that ultimate accessory, but now, I’d only be too glad to be rid of them. Glasses

The influence of genetics on myopia cannot be denied. However, it seems the prevalence of specs-wearers among the Asian species is also in part due to our social habits. Or rather, our anti-social ones. The lack of exposure to sunlight as result of our focus on studying has rapidly caused our eyesight to deteriorate. (Some irony in the fact that countries like Singapore or Taiwan, with more than their fair share of sunlight would end up depriving themselves.)

I cannot deny that Asian parents (and all the clucking relatives) place an inordinate amount of emphasis on bookishness. As a kid, I was rewarded, usually in the form of cold hard cash, for excellent exam results. Though some of my fondest memories from youth were at the swimming pool, tennis and badminton courts, people rarely asked what sport I enjoyed. In fact, I was part of the few who did have frequent sport and recreational time. Most of my classmates shuttled around extra tuition classes on a daily basis and many of them were indeed rewarded by a few extra points at exam time. Those extra classes cost their parents dearly, but it was for the greater good I suppose.

In the end, your habits start early and they shape the path to your destiny. Reading and writing has continued to be a lifelong obsession and coerced me into the legal trade. While I myself have neither the aptitude nor inclination for say, rock climbing, I wonder what the future holds for Petit-Homme.

Learning Chinese in the 1920s and Now

Chinese characters are pretty complicated. To be able to read a newspaper, you have to master about 3000 characters (there are over 50,000 in existence, but never mind). I wonder how many Westerners sporting tattoos really know for sure what those dots and dashes on their precious regions really mean.  Imagine how that badass looking to be “Fast and Furious” feels now that he knows he’s actually “Fast and Foolish”.

My grandmother, who is close to 90 now, taught herself to read Chinese by poring over entertainment bulletins distributed on the streets of her hometown. People then were motivated to learn because not knowing what the bulletins said meant missing out on the coolest shows and operas of the week. The 1920s looked very different from today where en masse and private lessons are ubiquitous. Kids in China now still learn to write characters through endless repetition and practice, but are also well versed in Roman letters. Consequently, writing Chinese on a computer or tablet is super easy, if you can read it – just type out the pinyin (transliteration) and choose from the menu of characters that pop out. No wonder penmanship is on the decline.

Working at it ...

Working at it …

As a child, I learnt it the hard way (endless repetition) and my efforts often deflated like my no-recipe-needed cakes. These days, I use Skritter on my iPad to practice. (You had me at “spaced repetition algorithm”.) It’s addictive and environmentally friendly. For $14.99 a month, I can finally bin the reams of paper and flashcards.

You've got it!

You’ve got it!

Given that China is not likely to alphabetize à la Ataturk Turkish Language Reform, it’s useful to be able to while away jet lag on Skritter as an option to dissecting that duty-free catalogue again.