Mid-Autumn Fest

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Zhong Qiu Jie Kuai Le!

The title above, literally translated is “middle autumn festival happy”.  Also known as “the moon cake festival” or simply, “Moon Festival”, this occasion was very different for me last year.
Last year I went with two guys from my intake (training) group—we’d known each other only a couple of months by that point—and one of the guys’ friends, another woman.  One of the guys lived close to the center where I worked, and had done some exploring.  He’d found Daxue Lu –daxue literally means “big study” and actually is used to mean “university”--Road.  Modeled after University Avenue in Palo Alto, California, this street was full of cute little shops like Sipping in Time CafĂ©, a cake shop, several little bars, a Pancake Day, some fancier restaurants and boutiques, and a place called Togo Taco, where we did lunch. 
Later, three of us got cans of Asahi (the fourth not being a drinker) and wandered up and down the street at a pace one only uses on holidays.  We took a few silly photos, ate a few moon cakes the woman had stashed in her bag, shared a horrid cigar, and strolled aimlessly until the full moon came out.  Before the metro shut down, we hopped a train for the French Concession and ended the night with dinner and a couple of drinks at Shanghai Brewery.
This year was different because one of my students invited me to her home for a real Chinese celebration—a unique opportunity to see first hand how a typical family might celebrate this important traditional holiday. 
Although my student lived near the center, and it would’ve been easy enough for me to take the subway and meet her somewhere, she and her husband braved the 20-minute road trip (in Shanghai holiday afternoon traffic) from their place to pick me up—then made a u-turn and took me to their place! 
I feel, in all of my complaint-filled blog posts about pushy Shanghainese, that I’ve failed to mention one thing about Chinese culture:  when they get to know you, they are the most kind and polite people ever. 
Their nice car, a VW SUV, reminded me of my mom’s Subaru, with its GPS display screen and tan leather seats.  On the drive we listened to some old school U.S. music—I’m talking about easy-listening country my parents had grown up with—and then some Elvis:  “Are you lonesome tonight?”  Apparently, Elvis is not just The King here—he’s The Cat King—as in, Mao Wang.  Hilarious!
When we arrived, my student’s parents said “Qing jin”—please come in.  I offered my gift with both hands—a gift bag full of five apples (because four is an unlucky number—luckily, I’d unknowingly covered all the members of the family as well); cookies from Costa coffee (two different kinds, eight each, because eight is a lucky number); and an American eagle silver coin my mother had brought from the U.S.
I also saw a familiar face—Jack, the English name for my student’s son, a young man of about 13 who’d been to the center for some activity (it was either the Halloween party or the Christmas party last year).
The first thing they wanted me to do was sit on their couch in the living room.  I was used to this after my stint in the Peace Corps—being a guest, being waited on.  As an independent American, this is sometimes hard for me, but I was chill enough to handle it today.  Cubed watermelon sat on plate, a few pieces with small plastic forks poked in them.
Almost right away Jack sat next to me with Yeries (his mother, my student) and took a deep breath.  He began, in careful English, to tell me the story of their trip to Wuyi Mountain, near Fuzhou (south of Shanghai) for his mother’s class reunion.  The trip was two years ago, but it seemed that Jack had rehearsed the story, possibly for some kind of class presentation.  On top of river rafting (which sounded familiar to me, being from the Pacific Northwest), the group had visited a famous cliff face where only three oolong tea trees grew.  This tea, called Da Hong Pao (long red robe), is worth more than $35,000 (yes, USD) per ounce due to its incredible uniqueness.
As I asked some easy questions and Yeries looked on with a proud smile, Larry, her husband, carefully added boiling water to a fistful of wet black tea leaves in a small lidded cup.  Gong fu cha,” he said.  “Kung fu tea.”  He let it steep about a minute before pouring the tea into a tiny teapot, and then into our four tiny cups.  The flavor of this tea was exquisite.
I learned later that gong fu cha isn’t a kind of tea, as I’d thought, but a kind of ceremony that means “making tea with great effort”.  Had we in fact been drinking da hong pao tea instead?!  I’m dying to know, because the tea was fantastic!
When we’d had a couple of cups of this tea, Larry and the grandfather got out a huge piece of white paper.
“Jack will show you his…ka…kagraphy?  His writing homework,”  Yeries stumbled.  This was rare for her, as she was an upper level student, and I quickly reminded her:  “Calligraphy.”
The men stood at the table, starting to fold the paper and then one stopping the other, arguing softly.  Yeries shook her head.  “Men are the same everywhere,”  I started, smiling.  “`Do it like this, man!  No, no, no, like this!’”
“My parents majored in German,” she answered.  “And my husband is a mechanical engineer with a German company.”  I rolled my eyes, nodding in a knowing manner.
Finally the men agreed on the folds, and Jack began his writing:  a vertical column of characters, top to bottom on the right, followed by a second column on the left—writing in a way no one writes anymore.  The finished product said something like, “If you intend to study well, you must work hard and walk the narrow path.”  I thought it was beautiful, really, the whole thing, from the meaning to the strokes of the brush, but Larry looked at it later and shook his head.  “Jack could do better,” he said.
Afterwards, it was time to make jiaozi, my favorite Chinese dumpling.  Jiaozi are made with round wrappers and boiled.  Huntun (wonton in Cantonese) are made from square wrappers, and baozi are steamed.  There are many more dumplings in Chinese cuisine, and we discussed the sad fault of English in expressing these different types.  I told them that my family simply used the Chinese words, since we’d lived in China before and were familiar with each.
One of the tricks with making jiaozi (similar to making tacos) is not to overfill.  Next, you wet the outer edge of the wrapper (the entire circle) with water on the tip of your finger, and close the wrapper tight, pressing hard with your fingers—as if to make the seam invisible.  The other trick involves holding the horizontal fold downward, each corner in the web of your hand (between thumb and forefinger), interlacing your fingers, and squeezing.  Most of mine looked a bit clumsy, of course, but none of them exploded in the water!
Later, the table was full of steamed Indian corn, boiled peanuts, and edamame; lotus root stuffed with rice; Peking duck sliced to go into small pancakes, with shredded cucumber and onion and the thick brown sauce; chicken; and Chinese kale.  It was hard to control myself, knowing that the jiaozi would be served last, especially as Larry and I drank our huang jiu (yellow wine—the rest of the family had apple juice).  Repeatedly we toasted all across the table, saying “Proust!”  Another international experience in Shanghai!
The jiaozi, steaming hot, were as fabulous as I’d hoped, with two different kinds of fillings and three different sauces.  There was also xilanhua, broccoli, steamed, with a dipping sauce made by Jack and his grandpa.  It was made of avocado, lemon, and honey, and was fabulous.  I could also imagine it being good on tacos, or tortilla chips!
If I’d been eating like this on a daily basis, instead of eating fried dumplings, KFC, and tons of rice or noodles (not to mention beer), I doubt I’d have gained as much weight as I had in the past year!  Real Chinese food is fresh and full of vegetables, with lots of flavors, from garlic to ginger, from salty to sweet.  This is one of the reasons why the teachers at my center will go to Wai Po Jia (Grandma’s Home) on the 6th floor of the mall anytime we get the chance!
Off and on the whole afternoon we’d been playing Go Fish, a card game that had actually been the focus of one of our classes at the center.  Mother had taught son, and so we all played a few rounds, as well as Crazy 8s.  Jack turned on the Tivo (or Chinese equivalent) so we could watch “The Voice of China”.  I found myself rooting for a man from Xinjiang, who almost looked like Russell Crowe’s cousin, if a bit rougher.  He played guitar and had a rough country look about him.  Apparently he’d had quite the difficult childhood but had traveled and performed all around Europe.  I was impressed by the singers—Mandarin, Cantonese, and English (with varying levels of intelligibility) were the common languages used. 
Between TV, card games, a bit of wine and feeling stuffed, it almost felt like a holiday with my own family.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Bathroom drama

I overheard this story in a bathroom at the summer party a couple days ago:


“So my friend and I are waiting in line at our center’s bathroom.  There are three stalls, right?  The one on the far end opens up, my friend goes in.  I wait a few minutes, and then my friend comes out.  I go in and do my business.  I come out.  Neither of the other doors have opened or closed this whole time, but suddenly my friend says she can hear music coming out of one of the stalls.  It’s very faint, but we listen and can hear it—soap opera music!  The two ladies who are supposed to be cleaning the bathroom are hiding in the stalls watching Chinese soap operas on their smart phones!”


I had to laugh at this, because it’s a weekly occurrence at my center, too, and probably is common everywhere in China. 


When my family lived in Qinghai Province in the late 1980s, my mom often mused that people spent an extra long time in the bathroom simply to get some privacy.  Listening to my students even now, I’m sure it’s true:  many of them are in their late 20s or early 30s, married, and still living with a set of parents.  In a country of a billion people, privacy is not a common luxury.


Being an American, I find this all highly disturbing. 


The bathrooms themselves are pretty disturbing, too. 


DISCLAIMER:  If you are squeamish about bathroom stuff, do not read any further!


The toilet seats in the ladies room are, 98% of the time, un-sittable, if that’s even a word.  When you’re in a culture that still has “squatty potties” most places, people will still squat, even over a seat, sprinkling it with urine or whatever else.  Sorry, but it’s true!  It’s very common, also, to see footprints on the toilet seat—that instinct to squat is still prevalent, even if it means you’re squatting a couple of feet off the ground, balanced precariously. 


Toilet paper is not thrown into the toilet (plumbing is not something the Chinese are known for), but is tossed into a small plastic garbage bin on the floor next to each toilet.  Toilet paper has just become available in the bathrooms, by the way:  there is one dispenser near the door to the bathroom.  You pull off what you need and take it with you into the stall.  Each stall does have an ashtray, though, so you’re covered there.  But one cannot count on the dispenser being full at all times, so it’s still best to take your own with you from the office to the bathroom.  Yup, students and coworkers all know where you’re going and what you’re going to do when you get there, unless you have deep pockets.


When the cleaner ladies aren’t busy watching soap operas on their smart phones (occupying stalls while a line grows outside on the busy first and second floors), they are plucking used toilet paper and unwrapped sanitary napkins out of the trash with old black tongs.  These tongs look like something you’d use to move logs around in a fireplace, or to flip brats on a grill.  This trash goes into a larger garbage bag, to be disposed of later.


They also mop daily, sometimes more often, although that mop will also be slopped up onto the sinks after it’s used to clean the floors around the toilets and urinals (this is coming firsthand from one of my male coworkers, who tried to explain cross-contamination to the lady in Chinese—she didn’t get it, even when a Chinese man translated).


China is impossible to dislike for long, though, it really is!  Yesterday after washing my hands, one of the cleaner ladies pulled out a long roll of toilet paper from the dispenser for me, holding it out with a so I could dry my hands.  The sweetness in her smile made it hard for me to be angry at her for watching soaps on her phone.  After all, if I cleaned stinky, disgusting bathrooms all day long for a living, I’m not sure I’d be able to smile at anyone.  But she can.

Shanghai Update September 2014

A word of warning:  There are a lot of complaints in this post, everyone.  If you need a pick-me-up today, I suggest reading something else!


The bank

Never walk into Bank of China without your smart phone.  This past Monday, a MoneyGram that routinely takes 45 minutes took 90.  Without my smart phone to keep me entertained with Sudoku and Kindle, that bank might’ve learned a few words in English they weren’t expecting.


I got my number (2009) at 10:41 am and settled in for the wait.  Usually it took about 15 minutes or so before my number was called, but today the two windows where I normally went to send money home were closed.  That was my first clue.



I sat.  I read a while.  I stretched.  I got up and paced.  I’d picked up a cold bottle of Itoen oolong tea to refresh me after the 30 minute walk to the bank.  I sipped it.  I sat back down.  I read some more.  I went to the bathroom, praying I wouldn’t miss my number.  I played a few games of Sudoku on my phone.  I stretched some more.  I read some more.


My number was called at 12:10.  The nice-looking young gentleman behind the window was wearing a tag that said:  TRAINEE.  I sighed. 


He consulted the manual.  He got other employees to look at the manual with him (one woman frowned with widened eyes, looking more confused than the trainee himself).  I could see half the staff behind the window milling about doing important tasks such as checking their WeChat messages.  We were also interrupted four times by various Chinese customers impatiently waiting in line behind me.


The poor trainee took forever to finish my transaction.  Part of the issue was the fact that I’d written “Spokane” (upper and lower case) not: “SPOKANE” in block letters.  I suppose if he’d written traditional characters rather than simplified I would’ve been just as stumped.  He checked the spelling with me three times.  At least he was thorough and diligent. 


The finality of those red seals being pounded into my paperwork (all three sheets of it) at one-o-clock was a relief.



At work, Wikipedia and Hotmail are the only things working besides the EF homepage.  Bing search doesn’t work, and some of you may know that Google and China are still feuding, meaning Google is unavailable 99% of the time.  My Skype call home from my apartment got cut off, and my internet has been down at home for the last two days.



The copier at work has been serviced once a week since I returned from the States a month ago.  Its favorite time to break down is Friday evening and Saturday morning—and of course, those are our busiest times.  There is one copier/printer for the entire center, meaning all 13 teachers and all 20 or so staff (sales and secretaries) use the same machine for everything.


The “repairman” from Toshiba spends as much time checking his phone and sighing as he does actually working on the damn thing.  Our center director refuses to budge on buying a second machine, or a new one at the very least.


I complained to my immediate supervisor today.  It’s really embarrassing to tell students no handouts or materials are available for the lesson they spend thousands of RMB on.  It’s bad business.  And since this IS a business, not a school, you’d think they’d do something about it. 


Yesterday was the annual summer party, and the company must have spent millions of RMB on food, alcohol, transportation, and venue rental—thousands of teachers and staff attended.  Clearly, the money is available.  The company is just too damn cheap to spend it on things they actually need.


Yeah, right

If I hear one more person telling me Shanghai is “a modern city” I’m going to scream.  At least I have air conditioning at home and at work, so it’s definitely ahead above the Peace Corps, at least.


If I hear one more person claiming Shanghai is “a cosmopolitan city” I’m going to scream.  Last week I went with two of my coworkers to a Mexican restaurant on Daxue Lu (modeled after University Avenue in Palo Alto, California).  On our way back, this woman (about 40 or 50 years old) stared at us for a good three minutes as we waited for the light to change so we could cross the street.  One of my coworkers is black.  Even when I smiled (sarcastically, I’ll confess) and waved and said “Ni hao!”, her expression never changed, and her eyes only flicked to me for a second.  The only thing missing was her mouth hanging open. 


I still get stared at regularly, even though white people are more common in Shanghai than black people.  I’ll admit that thousands of Shanghainese walk (or push) past me without a second glance, but at least every other day someone will do a double take or actually turn around on their bike, on their feet, or in their car to stare.  Some smile.  Most don’t. 


Shanghai is the biggest city in the world, but it most certainly is not cosmopolitan.


And if I see one more foreign guy who’s gay or with a Chinese girl, I’m going to scream about that, too.  I did have a small hope that I might find a guy here, which is ridiculous considering the fact that a good 50% of the local men come up to my shoulder, have long, dirty fingernails and have bad breath as well (garlic, cigs, and not brushing--ew!).  There are some good-looking Chinese men, here, though--tall and young (too young for me, usually, or with a girlfriend) and clean cut.  The foreign guys are either in long-term relationships or are a bit on the scuzzy side (they like massage parlors if you know what I mean).


Well, now that I’ve got all that off my chest…

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Qingting 13 August 2014

I was on my way to record audio at EF headquarters, walking along Nanjing Xi Lu and listening to my headphones.  Voice acting is fun for me, and today's session would be mostly dedicated to the Rio project.  EF is the official English language provider for the 2016 Rio Olympics, and I feel proud to be contributing to that.

As I walked, I noticed a man coming toward me on the sidewalk.  His yellowish robes, shaved head, and ready smile seemed very familiar and friendly as we made eye contact.  My family and I had visited some monasteries and had met a few Buddhist monks here and there during our time in Qinghai in the late 1980s.

While still about 50 feet away from each other, I noticed he was holding a small pink book in one hand and a little yellow card in the other.  I saw a couple of Shanghainese swerve widely around him, as if he had a disease.  I wasn't surprised at their reaction, but it still hurt a little.  After all, this guy had renounced everything in his life to follow Buddha--couldn't people treat him like a human being?

I smiled at the monk as we passed each other, and he handed me a little card.  It was a cheesy holograph of the Guanyin Boddhisattva.  I was familiar with her--a being of compassion that figured as prominently in The Journey to the West as Athena did in The Odyssey.  A boddhisattva, for those of you who aren't sure, is a being that had achieved enlightenment (like a buddha), but has stayed on Earth to help others do the same.  The closest thing in Christian religion?  Sort of a guardian angel.

I'd barely taken a quick look at the card before the monk pushed his pink book under my nose.  I noticed that others had written their names in the book (in Chinese characters, of course).  I think he meant to pray for me?  A pen appeared from one of the folds in the monk's robe, and I said, "Oh!  Okay, I'll sign your book."  We smiled at each other again, and as I was signing, he slipped a bracelet around my left wrist.  It was made of brown and tan marbled plastic beads, with a silver buddha on one side and a Chinese character on the other (I later learned this was the Mandarin for buddha). 

"Oh!"  I said, delighted, "thank you.  Xie xie!" 

"Bu keqi," he said, and pointed at the next column in the book.  I noticed that there were numbers.  200 and above.

Something clicked in my brain.  He wanted money.  Well, that's how a lot of religions work, I thought.  Amazingly, I wasn't getting frustrated about this.  I pulled out my little wallet.  It was a cross between burlap and canvas.  My sister and I had bought them at Yuyuan Gardens--a total tourist trap--for 10 kuai (or $1.50) each.  Mine had Chinese characters on it that read:  Qian bu shi wenti.  Wenti shi mei qian.  Money is not problem.  Problem is no money.

When I started to pull out 20 kuai (I knew that bracelet couldn't have been worth more than that), the monk waved his hand back and forth:  no no no!  "One hundred," he said in English.  I was pretty sure he'd peeped into my wallet and knew I had the money.

"Oh, God," I mumbled.  "Okay, okay."  100 RMB is around $17 USD.  I handed him the note.  All RMB is stamped with Mao's visage, which I thought was really funny right about now, considering Mao had tried to shut down Buddhism during the Cultural Revolution. 

In spite of shelling out more than I'd wanted to, I couldn't stop smiling at this guy, and I continued to feel delighted for the next half hour or so. 

Later that same day after work, I was walking to the train.  Passing through the tunnels was always interesting around Wujiaochang.  A recessed circle--a sort of courtyard--was sunken beneath the freeways overhead, and The Egg--an interesting oblong shape made of woven metal--was all lit up overhead.  Blue and green lights chased each other over The Egg's entire 100-foot length.  People bustled here and there, holding fancy paper bags with Uncle Tetsu's cheesecake inside, or plastic bags with takeout in them.  The ladies wore bright green and yellow dresses with jungle patterns, tiptoeing on their high heels like exotic birds.  Men held their girlfriends' pink handbags without the slightest hesitation, and other men looked like dandy gay models in their super-skinny red cropped jeans and tilted fedoras.

There were a few old people I always saw--grandmas trying to sell little things they'd knitted or men trying to sell puffed rice or corn cooked up earlier in the day.  One old guy was always shirtless, sitting on some steps and playing a Chinese flute--quite well, I might add.  His music sounded like old China--imagine one of those traditional black and white watercolor paintings, the misty mountains and waterfalls of Guilin.  I'd given this guy money before, but wasn't passing close enough to him today.

There was another old dude I'd passed before, a guy with tufty white hair and a broad, childlike grin who wove interesting animals out of palm fronds.  Dragons, birds, and crickets dangled on the long palm "leashes" he'd somehow woven into their backs.  He held these in his hands like balloon strings.

I'd talked to him before going home to the States for 3 weeks.  Our conversation, all in Mandarin (I say proudly) consisted of me bartering the price down to 10 kuai each and telling him I couldn't buy them now but would buy three when I went home to visit my family in America.

However, when the time came for me to pack up and leave, I couldn't find the old man. 

The same night I met the monk, I ran into the palm animal guy.  We smiled big smiles at each other, and I walked right up to him, my eyes on a specific one.

"Shi kuai, shi kuai!"  he said, remembering our price, even though it had been nearly two months since I'd seen him.  "Qingting," he continued, noticing where my eyes went. 

"Qingting," I replied, unnecessarily pointing to the dragonfly.  I handed him my 10 RMB with both hands, a sign of respect, and he laughed, one small little laugh.  I walked away, delighted, like a child holding her first balloon.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

8 July 2014

They're baa-aaack!

Yup, those maraca-shaking insects--Shanghai crickets--are back with a vengeance.  After nearly two straight weeks of rain, the sky is (mostly) blue and semi-cloudy, and the crickets seem to say tianqi hen hao--the weather is good.

After trying for over an hour to locate a European cafe I'd often passed on my walks to and from the Bund (but never noting the exact address), I settled for something closer to home.  I was sitting at the only outdoor table at LePause Cafe on Haining Lu, sipping a reasonably-priced vanilla latte (bing de, of course, given the heat) and a cold 11-oz. bottle of Hawaiian water--ridiculously priced at about $3.

This hot and semi-frustrating search had revealed something a bit sad to me--my neighborhood in Shanghai is not especially known for its outdoor seating.  Oh, sure, there are 5-star hotels with outdoor patios on their 8th floors--and the 5-star prices to match.  After living here for a year now, hanging at a hotel with a bunch of tourists who are unknowingly (but willingly) overpaying for their refreshments doesn't exactly tickle my fancy.

What had was my jaunt up and down Wulumuqi Lu yesterday.  I'd been trying to find the Avocado Lady, the famed hole-in-the-wall spot that catered to foreign tastes.  I'd heard about the place months ago but had always had other duties or distractions whisper "Maybe next weekend."  But when my chiropractor suggested posting my sign there, I had to go check it out.

The sign was for Gipsy Danger--the calico I'd inherited from my friends.  The man had been in my intake group but had returned to London about five weeks ago.  His now-wife had just returned to Guangzhou.  She planned to join her hubby when her visa cleared in September, but for now she was visiting her mom, who's not well--and who already has a dog.

The north end of Wulumuqi was someplace I'd never wandered.  Like a lot of Shanghai, there was the ebb and flow of run-down areas, with people tossing their garbage onto the sidewalk without a glance at the pedestrians who might be hit with this trash, followed by mansion-like apartment buildings catering to the rich.  I saw a local guy and his friend hop into a racy-looking Audi that was the outrageous color of a shiny blue beetle's wing.  Ten minutes later, I was dodging dog poop, garbage, and lugees again. 

Just like the neighborhoods, there's a wave-like motion to the traffic that I've come to recognize.  While still maddening to my American sensibilities, the seemingly chaotic scramble of busses, taxis, bicycles, scooters, and pedestrians does have a certain rhythm.  Oh, yes, people still walk five-wide on the sidewalk, forcing me to step into the street.  Near-silent electric scooters still sneak up behind me and beep their horns, making me jump like a paranoid squirrel.  I could honestly go on forever, but I am one person amidst 20-plus million, and my frustration won't change their habits one iota.

There are times when I can be zen about it (thank you, Peace Corps!).  If I'm not ravenously hungry, I can usually force a laugh or shake my head, or even find something entertaining about it all.  Sometimes, I even enjoy it!

It's not always easy, I'll admit.  But it wasn't always easy to love New York City or Spokane, either.  I'm finding more and more that the things that irritate me about some place or some person are sometimes the very things I miss later:  the habits of loved ones, for example.  Or the way people say hello to you so much when you're a foreigner.  Today I actually told a guy No hablo Ingles because I'm tired of people approaching me and making assumptions.  Next time I'll try speaking Pohnpeian, watch their face, and laugh.

But it's that very stuff that I inexplicably miss when I'm back in the States.  Overseas, I always get lots of attention--some of it negative or unwanted, but at least I feel noticed.  In the U.S., especially out West, I might as well be invisible.  I look and talk just like everyone else.  No one knows about me (or even tries) and no one cares.

I'm not trying to be Debbie Downer here, but there is a feeling of celebrity that comes with being an American in China, even in a place like Shanghai (supposedly accustomed--ha!--to the presence of foreigners).

People--men and women, young and old--still turn around to stare, or sometimes smile, at me.  Some even do double-takes.  Two days ago, in the elevator leaving work, a cute little girl shrieked "Laowai!" (foreigner) when she saw me and two of my American co-workers.  The girl's little brother promptly hid behind his auntie's legs.  There's an old man I see on my daily walks to the subway.  He always wears a suit, although he's most certainly retired, and smokes cigarettes.  The first few times we made eye contact, he stared so hard at me I felt insulted.  It wasn't a leer--it was more like an analysis.  Finally I got sick of this and pulled that old Peace Corps trick--smile and nod.  Brightly, I said, "Ni hao!" and waved.  Man, you should've seen his face.  It lit up like a Chinese lantern, pushing wrinkles back into his hairline as he grinned and waved back.  Now we smile and nod at each other every time like old friends.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Why it's hard to leave Shanghai

Understand this:  my social life had been sadly lacking in Spokane for the better part of six years.  I'm very grateful for the time I spent with my family, especially my sister.  I'm grateful for my cat, for blue sky and fresh air.  I miss all of that.  I miss the smell of pine and cottonwood trees.
Nevertheless, there are reasons to stay in Shanghai, and I'm planning on signing up for a second year here. 
I never thought I'd say this, but Haoledi (Holiday, or as I like to call it, "a howl a day") was really fun!  I can't believe it's taken my nine months to experience this, a hugely popular activity in Shanghai.  Some of the people in my intake group go once a week!
Located next to my center, team-building locations don't get any more convenient than Haoledi.  An American and a Chinese teacher were about to leave us for good, and a new American teacher was being welcomed.  About a dozen of us squeezed into a 25 square meter private room, complete with tiny corner stage, two large flat screen TVs, and a disco ball.  A case of bottled beer was brought in, along with bottle openers, bottles of green tea, ash trays, glasses, tambourines, and three microphones.  We ordered food.
There were songs in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and English.  My new boss from South Africa spent several years in Japan, so he sang quite a few songs in Japanese.  A co-worker with a Chinese wife sang along with the Chinese songs.  Another co-worker has a Korean grandmother, so the Korean songs were hers. 
Unlike karaoke singers in the U.S., most of my co-workers drank very little, if at all, and seemed to take the singing quite seriously.  They had fun, but the emotion behind the (often sad) songs seemed very real.
I sang Green Day's "When September Ends" with a Chinese co-worker--I'd had no idea the video was so depressing.  Two American guys and I conquered Nirvana's "All Apologies".  I'm not a huge Kurt Cobain fan, but I know the song well and felt I owed it to the guy since I was the only Washingtonian in the room.  We sang "Hey Jude" by the Beatles and danced to Psy's "Gangnam Style". 
American Night
Started by an American, this night at the pub occurs every five weeks or so invites every Canuck, Aussie, Kiwi, Yank, Springbok, and Zhonguoren who's interested.  It's interesting and entertaining to hear English through the filter of half a dozen different accents.  Everyone's usually in a good mood...it's common to have a few drinks, and you can meet people from all over (even Greece!) while getting your American fix.  The American guy who started it waits until everyone's had a few, and then he yells, "Candadians, where you at?"  and they all shout back.  "Aussies, where you at?"  They scream.  And so on.  It's great.
Pub Quiz at the Camel
My only experience with pub quizzes before coming to Shanghai was seeing the fancy one in the second "Bridget Jones" movie.  It looked fun, but I didn't know enough people to form a team, and it's not like Spokane had regular pub quizzes (at least ones that I was aware of).
Pub quiz nights coincided with "Tight Arse Tuesdays", meaning you could get two-for-one fish-n-chips and happy hour pints from 4 to 8 pm. 
Team names:  everything from the silly (Monkey Kings and Hampster Whoopie Cushion--our team) to the obscene (I won't mention details, but body parts and dirty words were involved).
The winnings:  500 RMB and a bottle of booze for first place; a bottle of booze for second; and a round of shots for third.
The quiz always involves the week in news, Shanghai trivia, a large music and movies section (hold me back!) and usually some kind of technical, historical, or sport section with a mysterious connection.
I've been twice now, and have had a team of four each time--me, two Brits, and a Chinese woman.  I would say we're all pretty well-rounded, and we did well, considering other teams had six or more players.  We were in the bottom half of about 20 teams.
Our homework assignments were to "revise" (Brit-speak for study) general knowledge and news for the next quiz--I chose baseball and celebrity gossip (twist my arm).
This last sounds a bit trite, but yes, I've been sucked in to the social-media-on-your-smart phone-in-Shanghai set.  I never had a smart phone until I came here, but I am now addicted and wondering how I ever did without.
As long as there's wifi, I can connect with my Shanghai friends and acquaintances in a Facebook-like environment on my little Samsung smart phone.  Lately I'm actually spending more time on WeChat than Facebook.  WeChat doesn't require a VPN.  It doesn't try to kick me offline every other click.  When our free wifi was shut down at work, I went out and got a wireless router and set up my own wifi at home--all by myself!  I'm pretty proud of that.  Part of the manual was even in Chinese!!
Grandma's Home
Yu tou tang.  Ma pu doufu.  Yum. 
Yep, fish head soup and spicy tofu are not exactly things I was expecting to like, but they are actually really good at Grandma's.  That's the name of a restaurant that prepares Hangzhou cuisine.  Hangzhou is about an hour outside of Shanghai by high-speed train and is famous for some of its food.

This restaurant is extremely popular, with long queues (for those of us unfamiliar with British English, that means lines) outside 30 minutes before opening.  Part of it is the food.  Along with the aforementioned dishes, Grandma's makes some great stir-fried green beans and peanut smoothies.  Of course there are the usual things foreigners never order (pickled pig trotters, for example, or cartilage of chicken leg).  You can get a large meal for six people under $50.  It's my favorite Chinese restaurant!  If you come to visit me, I promise we'll go!!

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Spring Miracles

It's Spring--or is it summer?!--in Shanghai!  Although most of the trees lining Haining Road have yet to leave out, I saw a tree blossoming on the Bund (Waitan); I saw two determined Shanghainese brides taking wedding photos with their grooms, their lips set on creating the perfect image; and I felt a hint of sweat on my face. It's nearly 80 degrees Fahrenheit today, and although the mists of pollution have colored the sky gray, the sun is shining and the birds are singing.  At work the students are flirting with one another in class, no matter their ages, and the British-Chinese couple who are my good friends here have gotten engaged.  Yep, it's definitely spring.

The construction site below me has gone from pouring and curing concrete to jackhammering it all up and setting round rebar cages at seemingly random locations.  I've decided that the Germans are probably the only construction workers I'll ever enjoy watching; everyone else seems illogical and haphazard.  The more I accept that the Chinese have their own methods (no matter what I think of them), the better I feel.

However, this is the fifth or sixth full day of almost continual jackhammering down there--I'm talking 10-12 hour days; and with drilling and hammering in the upstairs apartment, I'm afraid I must report that peace and quiet are not in my immediate future!

I was turned down for an alternative boarding school in Colorado.  As much as quiet and fresh air appeal to me right now, I've decided this was for the best.  Being cold and isolated up in the mountains sounds great for a week or so, but after NYC and Shanghai I'm not sure I could handle it.  Like I said, it's already 80 degrees here; there'd be maybe two weeks of that in CO!

I haven't given up entirely on the job scenario, which is a miracle in and of itself.  I'm working on my Yakima School District application (the second time--the first time was in 2008), as well as applying for an international school here in Shanghai.

There's a Chinese saying that the true miracle in life isn't flying in the sky, it's walking on the Earth.  When I consider the vastness of the universe, this certainly seems to be true.  My feet have taken me to many ends of God's Earth!  I'm grateful for my feet and my ability to travel.  Perhaps I'll never make much money in life, or find stable work as a high school teacher in America.  But I've seen and done much more than the average human being, and that is its own wealth.  I value it and am thankful for it.