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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

It's Hard but Wonderful

On her blog, an old friend of mine described the adventure of Christmas with her children: "This is exactly, but exactly, what I wanted. If the price of it is chaos and exhaustion, well, okay... But. It was wonderful, but. Or maybe and. It was wonderful, and it was hard."

I have to say I feel the same way about my own life adventure of traveling & experiencing what this big bad world has to offer. I'm learning so much about cultures & traditions, about picking up & starting over, about friendship & love, about myself. Sometimes it's chaos; many days I'm exhausted. But it is exactly what I want, & it's wonderful. But hard. And wonderful.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Knock-Off Brands

China is known for its wealth of knock-off brands. There's even a street called QiPu (named to sound like "cheap") where you can buy any "brand" you want. One brand in particular seems to have infiltrated the Shanghai fashion scene. Everywhere I look I see the tan & red tartan: Fake Burberry.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Up in Smoke

Unlike in the US, you can pretty much smoke anywhere in China. However, there are a few places that seem to be non-smoking. I haven't seen anyone smoke on the subway yet. Still, people smoke in the weirdest places - like in the elevator.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Me No Speak Chinese

There are millions of people living in Arizona who don't speak English. Many people who do speak English are incredulous: "How can they live in the US & not speak the language?"

As a language teacher I know that learning any language is difficult, even if you really want to learn it. But in the last several months, I have also experienced first-hand how hard it is to learn a language, even if you live in a country where it is spoken.

Not speaking the local language is pretty isolating. While I was living in Vietnam, I felt cut off from other people because I couldn't communicate with them, like there was a barbed wire fence separating me from the rich, full life beyond it.

In an effort to break down that barrier, I gave a decent effort to learning Vietnamese. However, after seven months there, I was only able to hold a basic conversation: What's your name? How old are you? Are you married yet? Believe it or not, there just weren't that many opportunities to practice the language.

I soon discovered that body language communicates an amazing amount of information. & most days it's more important just to get your point across than to speak the local language. The lady at the market doesn't want to give you a vocabulary lesson. She just wants to sell you her mangos. So you point, she types some numbers into her calculator, you give her the money, & that's that.

Here in Shanghai, it's also pretty easy to get by without speaking Chinese. Again, body language usually helps with grocery shopping & getting a cup of coffee. I'm doubling my language learning efforts, though, so I can raze the barbed wire fence & get a taste of what real life in China is like.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Happy Birthday to Me!

My co-workers got me a birthday cake!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Dead Shanghai

After five days without running water in my apartment because of a broken pipe in my kitchen, the problem is finally fixed. The plumber apparently had a hard time finding the elbow joint that he needed to make the repair because many of the plumbing stores in town are closed for Chinese New Year.

In fact, it seems that half of Shanghai has left town. Many stores & businesses have been closed all week: the rock gym is quiet, the street vendors are gone, even the corner quickie mart is dark.

I wonder when things will get back to normal. I'm really craving some street food.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

10 Things I Miss About Vietnam

1. Warm weather
2. Cheap prices
3. Yummy Vietnamese food
4. Ho Chi Minh
5. Hearing everyone yell "Hello!" at me as I pass
6. Riding the train to Saigon
7. Riding my bicycle around town
8. Driving on the left & the right
9. Crossing the street amid hundreds of scooters

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

China Post

I finally found the post office near my house! The other day I decided to try sending a package & some postcards. The postal worker didn't speak English, so I used hand gestures & the very few Chinese words that I know to tell him what I wanted.

The postcards cost me 4.50 yuan each (about 65 cents) to send to the US. For the package, I had to fill out a form in triplicate, noting the contents & their value. The postal worker then did his own mountain of paperwork, using a dot matrix printer to finalize the transaction. Unlike in Vietnam, he didn't ask me for my passport number.

The whole thing took about 45 minutes, including waiting in line & licking stamps :)

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Plumbing Break

This morning I woke up to the sound of running water, as if someone were taking a shower in my apartment. When I got up to investigate, I stepped into a half inch of water. I ran to the kitchen & saw that one of the pipes had broken. Water was spouting all over the floor!

I quickly shut off the water main, grabbed my Chinese-English dictionary, & went to the apartment management office to try to communicate my problem:  我要一个水暖工。Wo yao yi ge shui nuan gong. I need a plumber.

One of the men followed me back to my apartment. When I opened the door he gasped at the amount of water on the floor. He rattled off something in Chinese to me & hurried off. A few minutes later he was back with another man who also gasped. They held an excited discussion & were off again. A few more minutes & there was an urgent knock on the door. The two men had returned with a third man, who brought a mop & bucket with him.

All morning & afternoon there were people in & out of the apartment, one of them presumably the plumber. The water was mopped up & someone brought a dehumidifier to help dry up the water that had seeped under the floor boards. But since it's Chinese New Year, all the plumbing stores are closed, so I will be without water for several days. I wonder if one of my fellow teachers will let me use their shower.

Chinese New Years Eve

Xin Nian Kuai Le!
Happy Chinese New Year!

It's the Year of the Tiger. Roar! Chinese New Year is a family holiday, on par with Thanksgiving or Christmas in the US, so everyone goes home to be with their families, leaving the rest of us to fend for ourselves. I asked my Chinese coworkers what I can do to celebrate the new year - are there any parades with dancing dragons or festivals to attend? No, they said, everyone will be at home with their loved ones. Hm. Must be a US thing then.

On Chinese New Years Eve there was a steady stream of fireworks all night long, especially the loud ones. Other than that, the area around where I live was pretty quiet. The shops closed up early & there was no one on the street.

Then at midnight all hell broke loose. There were so many firecrackers that it sounded like a war zone out there. I was going to go outside to take photos when I noticed that people were setting off fireworks in the hallway of the apartment building. Better to stay inside & take photos from my balcony.

The cacophony ended just before 1:00am. Welcome the Tiger!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

English Corner at Lingo Bistro

I'm always looking at City Weekend or Smart Shanghai to see what's going on around town. This week I found the Friday night English Corner at Lingo Bistro. It was cold outside & I briefly considered staying home, but in the end I thought it would not only be a good way to meet people in town, but I might be able to practice some Chinese too. So I bundled up & headed out.

I took the bus to the metro station, then the metro to People's Square, the center of town. It took me about 45 minutes to get there. The streets were empty on this Friday night before Chinese New Year. I wondered if there would be anyone at the English Corner after all.

When I got to the restaurant, I was greeted by Rachel, a friendly Chinese woman (they all have English names) who gave me a name tag & led me to the back of the cafe where a large group was gathered. There were about 50 people sitting on couches around low tables, chatting up a storm. Though most of the group was Chinese, everyone made an effort to speak in English - it was English Corner after all.

I stayed there for about three hours. I didn't get a chance to practice my Chinese, but I did meet some nice people, so I'd say it was worth it. They hold the English Corner every Friday night, so I may go back again. They also have a Chinese Corner there, but it's on Wednesdays, a work day for me. I'll have to keep looking.

Friday, February 12, 2010

EF Chinese New Year Party

We had a holiday party at my school last Saturday, but this Thursday was the main event: the all-Shanghai party where 500 employees from around the city attended. The president of the company was there as well. He was a cheerful man with a friendly smile.

The party was held in the ballroom of a hotel on the other side of town. We took a taxi to the metro & then the metro to the hotel. It took us about an hour to get there. When we arrived, they stamped our hands & directed us to sit at the big round tables in the ballroom where we were left to mingle for an hour or so.

Then they announced that the buffet was ready & the feeding frenzy began. In the traditional Chinese way, everyone pushed & shoved their way to the food. No line, no order. People piled their plates high, reaching over each other for the serving spoons, & stepping on each other's toes as they fought their way out of the crowd. It was utter chaos.

After dinner came the entertainment. A few representatives from each school performed for the rest of us. Most of them sang Chinese songs karaoke style. A few did choreographed dances. There was a stand-up comedian & a Donald Duck impersonator. & one guy made a creative video about being successful in his job after taking English classes at EF. Of course the climax of the evening was the prize raffle. (I didn't win.)

At the end of the night, people started heading home. We said goodbye to each other & took taxis in various directions. I had fun hanging out with my coworkers & watching the entertainment. It was a good night.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

I See Tall People!

Yao Ming is not the only tall guy in China.

At 5'10", I'm tall even in the US. When I was living in Vietnam, I towered above almost everyone. But now that I'm in Shanghai, I've been noticing that a lot of the Chinese people here are actually taller than I am - both men & women.

Wikipedia says that the average man in the US is 5'9" tall, & that the average urban Chinese man stands 5'7" tall. Judging from what I've been seeing, Shanghainese people may be taller than the national average. Maybe it's because of recent better nutrition?

China is a quickly developing country. The urban centers especially offer residents first-world luxuries like health care & good nutrition. Perhaps this latest generation in China will produce many more star basketball players, eventually knocking the US out of the running.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Street Food

One of my favorite things to do in Shanghai is to try the street food. It's really cheap & yummy. I've found baked sweet potatoes, grilled vegetables on a stick, & bread pockets filled with red bean paste. In the photo, a woman (wearing a Hello Kitty apron, no less) is preparing a tortilla-like pancake for me, to be filled with chives & chili paste. She charged me the grossly inflated foreigner price of 3 yuan (about 40 cents). As I happily munch my breakfast (nom nom nom), I think of my dad on his birthday.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

One Month in Shanghai

I arrived in Shanghai one month ago today. Even though I haven't been able to explore much of the city yet, I feel like there is so much potential here.

Just about anything I want is here: a variety of restaurants, great shopping, museums & other cultural sights. Plus, there are lots of expat social groups for me to join. This year in Shanghai there is a literary festival (where Junot Díaz & Peter Hessler will speak), an  interantional film festival, a music & art festival, & the 2010 World Expo. There is something going on all the time!

I got very lucky with my job as well. My school is relaxed but still organized. The teachers are easy going. The students really seem to be interested in learning English, which makes teaching fun & rewarding. Many of the classes & programs at the school are similar to those that I had at my Spanish school in Arizona, so it's been easy for me to jump right in.

I'm so happy to be here in Shanghai. I'm really looking forward to tapping into the pulse of the city!

Monday, February 8, 2010

Sunday, February 7, 2010


Chinese New Year is coming up. This year it's on February 14th. This is the biggest holiday in China, equivalent to Christmas time in the US. Everyone gets time off from work & people go home to be with their families.

Of course, with the holidays come all the parties, including the Office Party, which is what happened last night. Where else could we celebrate together but a karaoke bar?

Words in Chinese characters on the screen!

The teachers cheering each other on :)

Saturday, February 6, 2010

University Studies

One of the great things about teaching English as a second language is that you get to learn so much about your students' culture.

The other day during a conversation class, one of the students said she was a studying philosophy at the local university. I asked what she will do once she graduates - where will she work? She said that she could do anything: accounting, management, finance. Really?

Apparently, companies in China are more interested in where you study & don't really care about the degree that you receive. Potential employers think that if you are able to graduate from a respectable university, then you will be able to perform the job well - regardless of what you studied. They base their hiring standards on the difficulty of the program of study rather than the actual subject of study. This is why students try so hard to get into good schools.

It makes sense, really. In China, they just want to know if you can learn. Now that's thinking.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Studying Chinese

I studied a little bit of Chinese before I came to Shanghai. Actually, I've been studying the language for more than five years, but before last October when I got the job offer to teach English here, I had no real plans to visit the country, so my studies were more of a casual nature - it was just a hobby.

Thank goodness for Juliana, my Chinese tutor in Phoenix, who was accepting of my erratic study habits. Because of her patient guidance, I can understand the numbers & some basic phrases, which is helpful when I'm at the grocery store or talking with a taxi driver. But any conversation beyond that is lost on me.

In an effort to improve my skills, I have been attending the free weekly Chinese lessons offered by my school, & every evening after work, I make sure to spend an hour listening to my Pimsleur lessons. I've also subscribed to online Chinese podcasts, & found a Chinese conversation group in town. Some of my students have even offered to tutor me!

I'm so glad for the variety of learning opportunities here. It won't be long before I'm chatting it up with the locals.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Cheap DVDs

There is a DVD shop near my apartment that charges 10 yuan for a movie (about US$1.40). I'm told that's expensive, but I'm not willing to bargain for a lower price just yet. The shop offers a wide selection, from the classics to brand new films. I've already watched The Time Traveler's Wife & Creation.

Sometimes the features on the DVDs are not the same as what you would get in the States. If you click on Spanish subtitles, for example, you might get Chinese subtitles instead. The other day I bought a copy of Good Bye Lenin. I've been wanting to see it for a while now. But when I got it home I realized that it was in German with Polish subtitles. Bummer. I took it back to the shop the next day & they happily exchanged it for The Lovely Bones.

Looks like I'm going to do a lot of movie watching while I'm here in Shanghai.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Shanghai Rock Climbing Gym

Last week I found one of three rock climbing gyms in Shanghai: the Hengyi Rock Gym at Hongkou Football Stadium. This gym is fairly close to my apartment - about a half-hour bus ride.

When I got there, there was no one on top rope...

... But there were plenty of people bouldering. About half of the climbers were Chinese, the other half were foreigners.

I paid the 40 yuan fee (about $5.70) & took out my gear. It had been about eight months since I last climbed, so I was prepared for a short session knowing that I would get tired quickly. I shoved my feet into my tiny little climbing shoes (ouch!), & started warming up.

Soon, a couple of climbers introduced themselves. One was Chinese, the other a Spaniard. Another opportunity to speak Spanish! We chatted & bouldered together for about an hour. My new friends tried to teach me a few rock climbing terms in Chinese, & I learned the Spanish word for "rock gym": ¡rocódromo!

It was such a great night. I'm really looking forward to climbing again!