Spring Miracles

Spring Miracles
A Chinese marriage market

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.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Chinese Lessons


Ah, the Chinese language.  I'd love to be clever and say, "Hey, it's all Greek to me!"  However, I've actually studied Greek.  Even with its cryptic symbols (letters that later influenced Russian's cyrillic alphabet), Greek was much easier.

I've learned a bit of Chinese.  And when I say "bit", I mean "a speck".  And when I say "a speck", I mean "something you'd need a microscope to see".  You see, the more Chinese I learn, the more I realize I don't really get it.

There could be fifty words that sound the same--but with different meanings, and the only way you know that is to read the Chinese characters.  I've learned the basics--numbers, compass directions, some foods--mutton, beef, chicken, fruit, wine, beer, vegetables.  Rather than being frustrated, though, I've started to just allow myself to be in awe of one of the most complex languages on Earth.

Given all of the above, finding my Chinese name was a pretty big deal.

A Chinese co-worker had looked it up on the internet for me a couple of months ago.  "'She-suh'," she said, "Or 'She-soh'...you choose."  She smiled.

I'd gotten to like this woman from Inner Mongolia.  She had sparkling eyes and a lot of personality, and her wide cheekbones reminded me more of Qinghai people than Han Chinese--I thought she was pretty.  And she always seemed to be laughing or smiling.

"She's so...awesome!"  I joked. 

In spite of our laughter, I wasn't too impressed, though.  I'd looked up "heather" in Pleco, my Chinese dictionary app on my smart phone.  Shi nan hua.  It had a ring to it.  But the girls in the office (other local teachers) said, "That's cheesy.  You don't want the word 'flower' in your name."  Hua means flower.  I messed around with a few other names, but nothing seemed to sink in or resonate with me, and my co-workers shook their heads.  Nothing sounded right.

I dug up the tiny photo album Mom had made before I left--on the front cover was a scan of my banquet name tag from Ge'ermu back in the 80s.  It took a while to find the matching characters in Pleco.  Part of the app allows the user to draw a character on the touch screen and find the character and its meaning.  After several failed attempts (How hard can it be to draw a picture?  I'd wondered.  Well, apparently hard enough), I switched to searching in pinyin, the Romanized Chinese alphabet.  Typing in xi (the "she" sound) brought up over 50 results.  There are four tones in Mandarin, so I knew xi could have at least four meanings, depending on the tone used. 

However, I'd underestimated the complexity of the Chinese characters yet again.  There were, at minimum, 10 xis in each tone.  Each one had a different character--and a different meaning.  A bit like English's there, their, and they're, but about ten times as complex.  Finding my Chinese name seemed suddenly important, though, and I dedicated myself to finding the right character.

There it was!  Hope.  First tone, the high tone.

(the "suh" sound) was somewhat easier to find.  It was in the fourth tone, the one I remember how to pronounce by using a downward karate chop with my right hand.  means the music of an instrument similar to a zither, from anywhere from 7-25 strings.

So my Chinese name, roughly:  Hope Music.

I'm not sure I knew what my Chinese name meant when I was 10.  I'm pretty sure I didn't care.  A lot of things upset me back then.  Well, for everything there is a season.  When I found my Chinese name, it gave me hope--literally.

Hopeful music inspires people.  I thought about singers and bands who've inspired me:  U2, Bruce Springsteen...songs:  "Carry on my Wayward Son" has been in my head a lot lately.  Good music has pulled me out of many a funk over the years.  I'm not a musician.  I'm good with words, though, and I wondered:  What can I say or write that will inspire people?  What can I do to inspire my students?

The journey continues!

For Lantern Festival (on our Valentine's Day), the āyí (auntie/housekeeper) at my center made tāngtuán.  Literally, the words mean "soup bowl"--yummy glutinous rice balls with sweet black sesame paste inside, floating in a warm sugary broth.  But the director of my center told me the word for "bowl" also means "come together, gather"--like many cultures, holidays in China revolve around food and family.

When you learn anything, experience is the true teacher.  I remember the names of foods because I order and then eat them.  If you don't eat, you don't live, so of course I'm motivated to remember words for water, meat, rice, etc.  I've learned shīzi tóu--Lion's Head--is a name for meatballs sold at Family Mart.  It sounds like dirty words, and makes me laugh!  I can order a Subway sandwich in Chinese.  I remember numbers because I shop at the local veggie market enough to know them, and the hand signals that go with them. 

A co-worker taught me this:  mei zhe liang xin--"not in my heart", or "my heart's not in it".  When your students and co-workers speak better English than you speak Chinese, it's hard to motivate yourself to learn such a complex language.  I can ask where something is--like "Where is the metro?" or "Where is this street?"  I can ask a shopkeeper if they have something or not.  Out of respect, politeness, I always try to say xièxie (thank you).  I can tell taxi drivers where I live, and if they don't understand me, I carry a laminated card in Chinese that gives the name of a store near my apartment--I've always gotten home.  I've told my students some stories about learning Chinese or other languages; I tell them I know how frustrating it can be to learn a language, and how funny, not to mention useful.

Inspirational?  I hope so!

Monday, February 10, 2014

Post New Year


Feb. 7

It's 9:44 am, and it has been raining for over 24 hours. 

That's not stopping the New Year, though.

The fireworks stands have vanished, but apparently some people have a stash.  As the Shanghairen return in droves to the city, pushing and shoving, the thunder of fireworks echoes in the canyons between high rises, booming up to Heaven and frightening away evil spirits.

This must be the safest place in the world right now--from evil, I mean.  Although, if I was a Communist government, I'd be more than a little cautious about this.  One of my first thoughts (as an American, of course), was "Wow, this is a LOT of gunpowder!  If a group wanted to revolt, they'd have some serious firepower at their disposal."

Red bits of firecracker paper swirl in the wind and become soggy chunks in the gutters. 

Feb. 10

It snowed yesterday and today!  No accumulation, though.

Yesterday I went to Lujiazui where all the new, crazy-looking "Jetsons"-type buildings are.  I saw all sorts of cute little kids bundled up and laughing delightedly at this new white stuff floating down into their mittens and onto their faces.  I didn't hold back my grins.  So cute!

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Xin nian kuai le!


New York City.  Los Angeles.  Chicago.  Houston.  Philadelphia.  Phoenix.  Spokane.  Imagine these cities combined forces and had a party.  If they pooled their budgets for 4th of July and New Years fireworks, doubled it, and lit everything off...They still wouldn't match Shanghai on Chinese New Year.

Besides a short lull from about 1 am to 3 am and 1 pm to 3 pm, it's been Fireworks Central around here--in spite of the government's so-called limitations (http://www.latimes.com/world/worldnow/la-fg-wn-china-fireworks-20140129,0,2905534.story#axzz2rxQzElFV).

I kinda like it.

Last night around 8 or 9 the neighborhoods a few blocks north of me starting blowing up the good stuff--pyrotechnics that, in the U.S., would be surrounded by a ring of fire trucks, just in case.  I could see flashes of it from my west-facing window, so I ran out to the hallway and looked out that north-facing window instead.  Mostly, everything was sparkling rockets of gold stretching up until gravity forced them to pop like popcorn in the sky--shimmering explosions of gold, and of course, the auspicious red, with a bit of random blue or purple thrown in for spice. 

To her credit, Gipsy Danger didn't seem as nutso as I'd been expecting.  She actually crouched in my window, fascinated by the flashes of light reflected in the windows of the tall buildings all around.  Of course, she's also the most talkative cat in the East, meowing and, at times, even yowling as if I've stepped on her tail. 

I'm watching Gipsy because her human parents, my friends, are in Guangzhou visiting family.  Right now Ms. Danger (named after the Jaeger in the movie "Pacific Rim") is curled up on her blanket in my rocking chair, content during the temporary truce (in firework parlance) to close her eyes and actually nap.

The air outside displays shockingly little damage from last night.  The pollution level is 167--unhealthy--which is fairly normal for this place.  The highest level in the Los Angeles area I can find right now is 80.

The gunshot bangs and the colors that light up the night remind me of some good times with cousins back in the States when we were younger, watching 4th of July fireworks and lighting off some of our own.  When your male cousins are pyromaniacs and are still blowing up stuff at our age (mid-30s), you just end up getting excited about all of it!

As the Year of the Horse gallops in, and the word mashang ("immediately"--as if on horseback) is being overused, let me enlighten you with a few predictions for 2014:  people will fight the good fight based on their ideals, especially towards the end of the year, but meaningless violence is also expected.  Patience and self-control are advised.  Supposedly, this is a good year for single people to meet that special someone.  I might sit that one out.  We'll see.  Businesses involving wood or fire will do well, since this year's horse is a wood horse.  Volcanoes are also predicted to erupt.  If you were born in the Year of the Snake (like me), it might be time to "reboot" your career, which I've been considering doing anyway.

Happiness, prosperity, and longevity to all my readers, and if you speak Cantonese:  Gung hay fat choi!
 
My sources for predictions:

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/chinese-new-year-2014-what-the-year-of-the-horse-means-for-you-9096775.html

http://fengshui.about.com/od/fengshuigoodluckcures/ss/Feng-Shui-Tips-Horse-Chinese-Zodiac-Sign.htm

http://ca.shine.yahoo.com/blogs/shine-on/2014-lunar-horoscope-predictions-130052631.html

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

22 Jan 2014


I've finally surpassed the six-month mark in my contract, and I can safely say that I am no longer experiencing culture shock! 

I am, however, experiencing what Peace Corps Volunteers and other seasoned ex-pats know as cultural fatigue.

People still push on to the subway or the elevator as people try to get off.  I know this won't change.  I'm used to it, but it still bothers me.  The logic of waiting a few seconds for people to get out so that it's actually easier to get in seems to be beyond anyone here. 

People still ride their scooters like they have a death wish.  They go against traffic, overloaded with passengers, water jugs, or sharp objects, texting on their cell phones (sans helmet, of course); they ride up on the sidewalk, beeping and swerving--or worse, not beeping at all.  On my best days, I actually find this somewhat exhilarating--what a physical challenge!  All senses on alert!  It's like reflex training camp!  But when you've got the flu, are tired, homesick, or just plain not in the mood, it's like a needle in your spine.  The most I've ever seen cops or traffic directors do is yell at them half-heartedly.  There is no enforcement; and yet, everyone seems terrified of the police because they are part of the Communist government.

The guards that operate the metal detectors at the subway entrance gates only make me scan my backpack half the time.  Still, it's irritating when a man or woman overloaded with shopping bags on a trolley doesn't have to lift their stuff onto the belt.  They don't even get wanded or patted down.  What, I ask you, could be in my backpack that couldn't be in their bags?  Sometimes I'm sure it's because I'm foreign; and it's hard to be angry about this, knowing that racial profiling happens in my own country--land of the free, supposedly.  Sometimes I pick up my backpack at the other end of the scanner, and notice that the second guard--who's supposed to be watching the monitor--is picking his or her nose, watching an ad on the big screen TV ten feet away, checking his or her text messages, or speaking with someone.  Why bother having me put my bag on the belt if you're not even going to watch the scan? 

After six months, I'm used to all of this.  But it still bothers me.  That's culture fatigue.  The shock has worn off, you've gotten used to it--but the culture you're living in doesn't change.  Every "problem" you noticed during week one is still there, and there's nothing you can do about it.

Living in Qinghai in the late 80s, and being a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, I'm well aware that my situation here could be much, much worse, and, contrary to what you might think, I'm not even really complaining.  I'm just tired of it.

Part of it is big city life.  With 20 million people, you must push.  You must hurry.  You must fight a little harder for a place in line, a seat on the subway, a good spot in a crowd.  After three years in New York City, I kind of get it, and then some.

I'm not saying Shanghai is a hell hole, although sometimes, when I can't see the buildings a block away due to the pollution (PM 2.5 over 500, anyone?), or when I can smell the garbage truck 20 floors up, it certainly feels like one.

Okay, then, you ask, are there any good things about Shanghai?  Yes!  I've made more friends here in six months than I did in six years in Spokane.  I have a job here.  I'm even dating a great guy!

I just wanted to say, before I got into the whole Chinese New Year holiday thing, that I'm enjoying my time here as well as getting sick of the place--and that's normal.  That's life.  I feel almost the same way about Spokane--the air was clean, but I had no job.  The traffic was orderly, but there were no decent men to date.  I had my family, but no buddies.  I love Spokane.  But I was sick of it.  And that's why I came here.

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January 14th was the annual party for all the teachers and staff at the adult centers.  It was kind of like a company Christmas party, except we were really celebrating the Year of the Horse.  It was held in Le Royal Meridien, one of the fancier hotels in Shanghai, and everyone was dressed up--"red carpet wear", the invite had said.  The food was "just so-so", as my students would've said.  They'd attempted to make the Chinese food more to the western palette, and the western food more to the Chinese palette, and as a result, everything tasted a little off.  The coffee and the salad were okay, and the desserts, and far be it from me to complain too much about a free lunch!  I cleaned my full plate!

Each center had prepared a performance of some kind--a song, a play, a dance, a traditional something-or-other.  Some of them were downright horrible--people forgetting lyrics, not being able to hit notes, or dressed in way too little and dancing way too scandalously (bordering on strip club, I'm not kidding).  But some of the performances were great!  Two different girls tackled popular Adele songs, and did quite well hitting the notes.  One center had taken "The Twelve Days of Christmas" and turned it into "The Twelve Days of EF", and I was nearly in tears of hilarity by the end--they pretty much said exactly what I'd been feeling, especially when they shouted "NO CHRIST-MAS BREAK!" at the "five golden rings" part on the final verse.

However, another center had decided to retell the story of the birth of Christ, using both foreign and Chinese actors.  One of the actors, a Brit playing a bare-chested Joseph, kept interrupting his own lines to tell us, "It's not blasphemous!" when it clearly was.  I mean, Mary in a pink skirt that barely covered her ass and in three-inch heels?  The Angel of the Lord worse than Tinkerbell, yelling at the characters and bopping them on the head with her magic wand?  Mary pregnant before the Angel's visit?  And, finally, Mary giving birth to Santa Claus?  A Catholic buddy and I met up after, shaking our heads.  The baby Santa thing had been pretty bad.  Some people in the audience had actually walked out of the performance; an American co-worker of mine had laughed until he was in tears.  To top it all, the entire performance looked as though they'd written it the night before and hadn't rehearsed--they repeated lines, missed cues, missed whole scenes, and then interrupted other scenes to explain what they'd missed.

I wondered if the performances would've been better or worse if alcohol had been served.

Speaking of, rather than doing a lucky draw, as was tradition, the higher-ups had decided to purchase a bottle of "Celebration Wine", a red from Down Under, for each one of us.  With its screw-off top, I was sure it was going to be horrible, but the Aussies didn't disappoint.  It wasn't the best wine I'd ever had, but it certainly wasn't the worst.

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The mall where my center is located has seen increased activity since about two weeks ago.  You could equate it to the last-minute Christmas rush at home.

I sometimes feel as though pieces of my culture are being pilfered here:  fake pine boughs dripping with red and gold ornaments, clearly Christmas decor, being used for Chinese New Year; "Oh my darlin' Clementine" becoming the melody for "Happy New Year, Happy New Year, Happy New Year, everyone!"; Handel's "Hallelujah" being used in commercials (I know it is at home, too, tongue in cheek; but here, where no one believes in Christ by government decree, it makes me mad).  There are Nordic patterns on sweaters, and Christmas lights decorating the chilly tropical plants in front of my apartment building.

I then have to remind myself of the bodhisattva incense burner I have at home, my Tibetan singing bowl, the times I've studied yoga or hung Tibetan prayer flags over my door.  The chopsticks and soy sauce in the kitchen.  The red and silver Asian-looking earrings I sometimes wear.  I don't think of myself as stealing anything then; I think of myself as exploring, appreciating.  Is that what China is doing with Christmas--adding it into their Chinese New Year celebration--appreciating?  I'm not sure, but I have to be careful how harshly I judge because I don't have enough information to really know.  And it's not like every Christian in America takes Christmas as seriously as they should.

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I feel bad for my students.  Some of them live far away and are planning to travel over the new year break--but then they admit they don't have their tickets yet.  Tickets are notoriously difficult to come by this time of year.  Some may wait days at the train station without being able to get on a train--my sister and I watched a documentary about it on PBS.  There is a sense of deep obligation to return home for the new year; and an equal sense of guilt, I'd imagine, if the person isn't able to make it.  Some of my students, I can tell, aren't especially looking forward to the holiday; some see it the way Americans might see Thanksgiving or Christmas--a time of forced imprisonment with dysfunctional relatives with the obligatory smile pasted across your face because this is supposed to be a happy time, after all.  Hurried preparations, exhausting shopping trips, and shoving crowds out of your way more than usual. 

A lot of my students are working overtime right now so that they can earn an extra day off.  Working overtime and then spending Saturdays in their three or four--or five--English classes.  Their dedication still amazes me.  It is humbling, inspiring, exhausting, and sad to watch.  When I see a class of twenty having entire conversations in English, it feels like a miracle, and sometimes I just watch with a smile on my face instead of scribbling down notes to use later for feedback.  I can tell you right now, if I worked overtime during the week, I would not be spending my Saturdays learning another language!  At least not for five hours.  Maybe one hour.  For fun.

That's the difference between my students and I.  They are willing to sacrifice their free time because of the benefits knowing English will give them--promotions, a higher salary, a more important title.  My free time, I have to admit, is quite valuable to me.  Even knowing I could make more money makes me reluctant to let it go.  Maybe if I had a family to support, I'd feel differently?  Who knows?

Monday, January 20, 2014

21 January 2014: Liang kuai!


This will be an article about money.  Liang kuai is a way of saying "two yuan", but it's also a way of saying "cool" (as in, "awesome"), and I think it's a fitting title:  some things are cheap in Shanghai, and some are downright robbery.  If you've ever lived abroad, you can probably already tell which items will be the most outrageous, but sometimes the truth is still surprising.

Here goes.

A box of 25 Twinings tea bags is 38.6 kuai--nearly $6.50.  Wasn't this the land of tea?  But Twinings, you see, is a British brand.  Darn that import tax.

Granola is about $10 a box--on sale.

If you stay local, of course, everything's cheap.  One place that saved my butt here in July, August, and September was Happy Lemon.  I could get a frosty, yummy mango orange smooth for 10 yuan--like $1.67.  Imagine getting a 12 oz. smoothie anywhere in the States for that price. 

My Chinese friend and her British boyfriend (who was in my intake group for the same company) showed me a great vegetable market.  It's probably government controlled, because the prices were stable (non-negotiable), the produce was clean and up off the floor, and the place was well-lit.  All of the vendors had hands that looked scrubbed clean.  This market was in the same neighborhood I've written about before (where the locals have no bathrooms and where the fire truck can barely get down the street).  But after griping about the poor quality of produce at Jiadeli, it was worth the extra walk and the extra interesting sights along the way to go to that veggie market.

One trip there, I got a nice frozen chicken breast, some freshly homemade noodles (stretched right in front of me), and a bag full of veggies--all for about three dollars.  Yes, three bucks.

The same friends helped me purchase a toaster oven online.  I had dreams of muffins, toasted bread, cookies.  99 kuai--only about $17 or so!  However, when it arrived, it became clear very quickly that all it could do was toast bread.  (Not being able to read item descriptions online when shopping on Chinese websites is always a gamble.)  An oven with temperature control that would actually bake something was, of course, far more expensive.  A box of "cheap-in-Spokane" blueberry muffin mix, I'd discovered, was $12.68 anyway--it was actually cheaper to go to the many bakeries in Shanghai (thank you, French people!) and just buy muffins already made if I got a hankering.

Most apartments don't come with an oven in Shanghai, and if you've got a clothes washer you won't have a dryer.  My apartment has a water heater, too, so if I want to have a hot shower I've got to plan ahead.

A box of feminine supplies runs about the same as in the States, perhaps a bit more.  You have to go to the foreigner grocery stores for them, though; local stores do not carry them; even the pharmacies, and even Watsons (a British Rite-Aid) don't, either.  Once again:  Shanghai is modern according to their standards, not mine!

Speaking of Watsons, I went there the other night after work.  It was a Saturday evening, and the mall was packed with pre-Spring Festival crazies (imagine a mall in America about 10 days til Christmas and you get the idea).  I'd come down the flu and was looking for some zinc.  Once again, the logic of the store and the logic of the Chinese culture baffled me:  There were only two cashiers.  There were eight customers in line.  And there were over a dozen salespeople roaming the aisles like sharks.  Why they didn't add at least two more cashier lines was beyond me; however, I've never seen a customer get impatient and leave a line.  Not at Watsons, not at the supermarket, not at the post office.  Maybe the extra salespeople are a better strategy--get people to fill up their baskets, because waiting in long lines doesn't deter them from buying anything.

Clothes were a slightly different story.  Qipu Lu (the cheap shopping street half of Shanghai comes to on a daily basis) is only two blocks from my apartment, and I'd picked up a beautiful scarf for 10 kuai (about a buck-fifty)--without even haggling!  There were fairly cute skirts and coats for $10 to $50--not that I bought them, but the prices were enough to get my attention.  Ah, Qipu Lu--your old-school techno blasting out of crappy speakers, your shoppers with overloaded trolleys and four-inch heels, your squid-on-a-stick snacks--I must confess I've been sucked in just a tad.

Recently, I've noticed my denim jacket being too small for me to be able to close the buttons.  I love the dark wash of this jacket, but it is a small--I picked it up for three bucks at a Spokane farmers' market a couple years ago, so it's not like I'd be throwing money away if I got a new one now.  I was hoping to see something at Qipu Lu.  I haven't seen every store (I have a low tolerance for crowds, ironically enough), but there are pretty much no denim jackets to be found. 

For kicks, I decided to have a look at a couple of stores in the mall (Bailian Youyicheng) where I work.  I was pretty sure the Wrangler store would be cheaper than the Levis store, so I went there first.  The style of denim jacket I like is called "trucker"--your standard jean jacket with a collar, button front, and two pockets.  I saw a jacket I liked and flipped the little price tag over.  800 yuan.  I blinked.  No way.  800?  That's about  $133.  Yes, you read that right.  I shook my head and laughed a little, and the shop assistants seemed pretty bummed to see me leaving without buying anything.  Foreigners, the rumor goes, have more money than locals.

I'd try the Levis store next.  Why not?  How high would the prices go? 

Well...how does 1099 kuai sound?  About $183 for those of you calculating at home.  I checked on JC Penney's website when I got back to my desk at work--the exact jacket was $50.  Yes.  So they were charging more than triple the price here--here, in China, where, ironically, a lot of famous "American" products get made.

There were a lot of stores in this mall with nice dresses for 2580 kuai, or about $430.  The stores were empty, other than cute employees sedately picking their noses.  Who's shopping here?  I wondered.  I'm aware that China's developed a new riche over the past couple of decades, but this was crazy.

In the Jing-an Temple area are a lot of western luxury brand stores--Hugo Boss, Marc Jacobs, Coach, etc.  I've seen perhaps one customer in the whole six months I've been here.  Usually, I walk by these stores and it's just the employees, looking almost suicidally bored, pacing and trying to look rich enough to serve the ultra-rich. 

I read somewhere that Marc Jacobs, et al are perfectly happy having stores in Shanghai, since Shanghai is considered the fashion capital of China (maybe even the whole of Asia)--even if no one buys anything.  It's good for business just to have "Shanghai" on your list of stores.  And, of course, it's good press and good economics for Shanghai neighborhoods to have a Nike or a Gap somewhere within walking distance.

Well, whatever floats their boats.  I've always admired fashion from afar, especially since I can never afford it on whatever salary I usually have.  A larger concern is paying off those student loans before I'm 80--that would be nice.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Huŏguō 21 December 2013 Mingyue (bright moon) Charcoal Hotpot (huoguo)


I'd been put in charge of organizing the staff Christmas dinner/Secret Santa gift exchange.  We had a generous budget of 2000 RMB.  My Chinese still isn't good enough to make reservations over the phone, so I had to ask one of my awesome coworkers to do it for me.  Only two of my coworkers couldn't attend--one was ill, the other was on annual leave.  I have to admit the Secret Santa thing was kind of exciting.  I'd drawn my boss, a lovely Filipina lady who is Catholic like myself, so I grinned as I tied a red "Jesus is the Reason for the Season" ribbon onto her gift bag.  I'd gotten her a lovely tropical plant and a seaweed mask, which I thought was fitting for an islander.

Saturdays tend to be a bit rough for me sometimes.  I usually start at 10:40 am with three classes in a row.  The good thing is that I'm usually done one or two hours before most of the other teachers.  Two of my American coworkers joined me down at Mingyue for a quick "pre-game" beer while the staff took their time prepping the table for two large hotpots.

There were these big ceramic bowls with sort of metal chimneys sticking up in the middle--like a volcano or something.  Full of charcoal, the chimneys had waves of heat and tiny trails of smoke coming out the top; the water in the ceramic bowls was at full seething boil.  One bowl was the spicy one, and the other one was flavored with milder stuff.

We trooped out to make our own dipping sauces; there was a buffet of ingredients:  chili sauce, vinegar, scallions, Chinese parsley, chopped nuts, sesame seeds, sesame oil, sesame paste, garlic, etc.  Literally 30 small salad bowls full of different things to create your own potion.  I'm a fan of sesame oil, so I loaded up on that, among other things.

I know it sounds obvious, but the hotpots were REALLY hot by the time we returned to the room.  They made our faces turn red.  In broken Chinese, I asked my coworkers to name many of the ingredients, cold and/or raw on their plates waiting to be cooked.  It was fun to throw in thinly sliced beef or pork, prawns, lotus root, yam, winter melon, pre-cooked quail eggs, and lots of other stuff--and then fish it out!  It was like camping, in a way, which I adore.  Just trying to get the eggs, for example, out of the boiling, oily water with chopsticks took more skill than eating should have to take.  We giggled or groaned, trying to help each other.  Eventually, we all had to get plastic Chinese soup spoons, and even my Chinese coworkers used them. 

I begged forgiveness for peeling the shells off my prawns with my fingers--after two years in Micronesia, the idea of eating seafood with a utensil was impossible, but I didn't want to offend my coworkers--who somehow managed to neatly nibble the prawns out of their shells with delicately-held chopsticks.  Every 20 or 30 minutes, a restaurant staffer would enter the room with a huge steaming kettle of water and add some to the bowls, making clouds of steam that evaporated quickly. 

I may have been on my second or third Budweiser (which I usually can't afford) when it was present time.  None of my Chinese coworkers celebrated Christmas, but they'd sure gotten into the spirit.  And they'd gotten some great deals.  Our Secret Santa budget had been 50-60 RMB per gift, and some of my coworkers showed up with huge tote bags full of stuff.  I really don't know how they'd done it--other than the fact that they were locals, of course. 

Another of my coworkers had made a silly paper crown for an American guy who sits next to me in the office.  It had come down to Thai food or hotpot, and he'd successfully pushed the vote for hotpot.  "We have an announcement--the King of Hotpot, everyone!"  We laughed, and the coworker who'd made the crown videoed the King's speech with her smart phone.

My gift was a solid cube of soap from L'Occitane that smelled like linden.  It was from the lone Brit in our office, who would be leaving the next day.  So far, two foreign teachers had left and two had replaced them; the local turnover was higher, with four out and four in.  That's just in the six months I've been working.

I still haven't made any solid decisions about my future here.  My contract is up in July 2014.  I hate the pollution, and there is a painful awareness of just how many people 20 million is when you must push your way through them on a daily basis.  But I've met and/or seen Chinese, American, Irish, Italian, Kiwi, Canadian, Indian, and German ex-pats, just to name a few.  I love the diversity.  There's a Chinese man I met who's been teaching English to Maori children in New Zealand.  I've seen a beautiful Chinese woman speaking German on her cell phone.  I've listened to Johnny Cash and Enya while eating lunch at a restaurant named Southern Belle with an Aussie and a Brit from my Chinese class.  I love knowing THE WORLD EXISITS--something that we don't really KNOW in Spokane, I'm sorry to say.

At the same time, I long for crisp blue skies; for an all-day chat with my sister over a cinnamon roll from the Rocket; for the purr of my cat next to my ear as he sleeps; and for the absence of constant construction noise.  Everywhere I've been, everything I've seen--nothing compares to the beauty of the Pacific Northwest, it's mountains and its trees, its clear streams and quiet hiking trails.  I can't imagine living in Shanghai forever, that's for darn sure!