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Saturday, July 31, 2010

Karaoke Bands

Shanghai - the largest city in the world, a multi-cultural sea of people, a cosmopolitan melting pot of East & West.

There is so much to do in this town: world-class cultural events, fake markets & shopping malls, more shopping malls, a variety of restaurants to choose from, even a burlesque show to see - & shopping malls everywhere.

& there's live music almost every night of the week. I often go out on my days off to sit back with a Guiness & listen to the local set. There are a lot of talented musicians here in Shanghai, but surprisingly, most of the music that I've come across is offered by what I call karaoke bands. Their songs sound just like the originals & are more for background entertainment than anything else.

The only place I've found that consistently features original live music that's almost certain to be good is a place called Yuyintang. It's a bit far from where I live, & winds up being on the expensive side once you tally the cover charge, drinks, & a cab ride home after, but it's so worth it to be able to hear some creative vibes.

Friday, July 30, 2010

(Cough! Cough!)

Uff! Today was an especailly smoggy day here in Shanghai. I decided to spend the day inside rather than brave the cloud. I read The Mist - I wasn't going out there.

According to Shanghaiist, the air quality in Shanghai is at its worst since 2005. I thought they were trying to clean things up to impress all those people who are in town for the World Expo, but I guess it's not such an easy task. 20 million people milling around, thousands of factories belching their filth into the air, cars & trucks & busses - oh my!

It was a stark contrast to the clear skies that we saw last week. I actually saw the moon on a couple of nights - even a few of stars twinkling in the firmament. It was a nice reprieve from the ordinary, but alas it couldn't last forever.

(The photo above was taken from my apartment on the 22nd floor. The shorter blue-grey building in the center is the mall where I work. It takes me about five minutes to walk there in the mornings.)

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Monkey King

Last week we did a storytelling lesson in one of my English classes. I asked the students to tell me a well-known story from China, & they told me the story of the Monkey King, a mischievous supernatural creature who wound up achieving nirvana because he helped a monk on his journey to India to find the holy sutras. It's the story behind the movie Forbidden Kingdom, starring Jet Li & Jackie Chan.

I remember seeing the Monkey King story played out repeatedly on Vietnamese TV, but I didn't know what it was at the time. Now that I know the name of the story (Journey to the West), perhaps I can find the show online somewhere. Does anyone have suggestions on where to look?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Chinese T-shirts

One of my favorite things to do here in Shanghai is look for interesting or funny or very Chinese-y things to send to my friends & family back home. Lately, I've been searching the city for t-shirts with Chinese characters on them - but haven't found any yet. Can you believe it? Not one t-shirt with a Chinese character on it. I must be blind. I mean, I do live in China, for gosh sakes.

However, there is no shortage of paraphernalia with English words emblazoned on them, including the popular boyfriend-girlfriend t-shirts the young couples are wearing these days.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Garbage Police

Shanghai is not exactly the cleanest city in the world. People hack & spit on the street, dump buckets of grease on the sidewalk, & toss their garbage anywhere they please. Even the children do their part to keep the city less than pristine. After living here for six months, I guess I've gotten used to all the grime.

Still, they do try to keep things clean. There are thousands of people dressed in blue sanitation uniforms constantly sweeping & generally picking up after everyone. But in a city of 20 million people, it's almost impossible to stay on top of it all.

The other day, I awoke to an insistent banging on my apartment door. I crawled out of bed & I groggily opened it to find the apartment manager excitedly waving at the pile of trash outside in the hallway.

She demanded to know who had left it there. "不是我的 - bu2 shi4 wo3 de - It's not mine." She reproached me a few more times before she went banging on the rest of the doors on my floor. She must not have found the culprit, though. Two days later, the garbage is still there.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Urban Planning

Last week I went to the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center to check out their scale model of the future of Shanghai. 30 RMB (about US $4.25) got me inside.

Apparently, this Shanghai-in-miniature is what the city will look like once all the construction is finished. Judging from the model, it looks like an extra skyscrapper is in the works for the Pudong side of the Huangpu River, next to the iconic Oriental Pearl Tower. My apartment isn't included here. I guess it's too far from the city center.

The museum also houses before-&-after photos of Shanghai ("before" being the 1980s). It was amazing to see how drastically the city has changed in the last 30 years. Just to give you an idea of the startling transformation this city has undergone, here's a photo of the Bund in 1990:

& what it looks like now:


Friday, July 23, 2010

10 Things I Miss Eating

1. Avocados
2. Strawberries
3. Brown rice
4. Soy ice cream
5. Chimichangas
6. Oatmeal with blueberries
7. Pancakes from Pita Jungle
8. Ethiopian food at Blue Nile
9. Fritos on road trips
10.My own spicy mango salsa

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Blackout (没有电)

Last night I was quietly surfing the internet when the lights in my apartment went out. Blackouts were pretty common while I was in Vietnam, but this is the first time it has happened since I moved to Shanghai. The neighboring apartments all seemed to have electricity, so I decided to try to find out what the problem was from the apartment security guard.

I went to the front desk, & told the guard there that I didn't have any electricity. He asked me which apartment I was in, & I told him. He said that I should call the apartment handyman & told me the number as I wrote it down. I asked if the handyman spoke English, & the securtiy guard said that no, he didn't. But I don't speak Chinese, I whined-- Then I suddenly realized that I just had that entire conversation in Chinese. Huh.

Bolstered, I took the number & once back in my apartment, I called the handyman. "喂你好 wei4 ni3 hao3. Hello?" I was able to tell him - in Chinese - that my electricity was out & which apartment was mine. In a few minutes, the lights came back on & all was illuminated.

I'm pretty amazed at the whole thing, actually. Looks like my Chinese skills are getting a little brighter :)

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


I've been using this great website called ChinesePod as part of my language study routine. They have short ten- to fifteen-minute podcast lessons that present vocabulary & grammar points in a dialog that's often humorous as well as useful. The dialogs are simple, so they don't bog you down with lots of new information at once. This way it's much easier to remember what you've learned from day to day. Plus, it's FREE! I like free.

The other day I came across this other really cool website, Chinoesfera. It's another free podcast for learning Chinese, very similar to ChinesePod, but this one's for Spanish speakers! All the lessons are explained in Spanish, which gives me a double dose of language practice. So cool.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Large Shoes

There's this great website called Shanghai Solved where you can post a question about Shanghai & one of the other members will answer you.

Several weeks ago, one of the members posted a question about where to buy shoes for big feet in Shanghai, & another member posted an answer recommending a store on the other side of town.

I took down the address, printed up a map, & went in search of it on my day off. After several wrong turns, I found the store in an alleyway, up a set of stairs, & with no other signage anywhere except for this declaration on the door.

I went inside & was amazed to find lots & lots of shoes for big feet! & they were "normal" looking shoes too, without rhinestones or bows or funny colors that no one wants. Plus, they were reasonably priced at 150-250 RMB a pair (about US $20-$35).

I didn't buy anything this time since this was just a reconnaissance mission, but I will definitely go back there soon. I could use another pair of shoes for work, & maybe some new tennis shoes.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Mahjong: Part 二

A couple of weeks ago, I found a teeny tiny mahjong (麻將 ma2 jiang4) set at the fake market. This weekend, I was finally able to recruit a few students to teach me to play. They all seemed to think it was funny that I wanted to learn to play the game, especially with these itty bitty tiles, but they agreed anyway.

It turns out that mahjong is very similar to gin rummy. You collect tiles to make groups of three, matching three like tiles or creating a run of, say, 1-2-3. The first person to match all of his or her tiles wins.

Apparently, no one thinks it's any fun unless you're betting on the game, but of course gambling is illegal in China, so mahjong is starting to fade out of fashion. It's an old folks' game, they say. I guess there's always that crazy dice game to fall back on.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Wizard of What?

I'm often surprised by which elements of Western pop culture are recognized - or not recognized - by people here in Shanghai.

Since the late 1980's, China has had an open door policy, inviting foreign investors to help develop its market economy, & along with the investors came pop culture. People here eat at KFC, wear (fake) Gucci, & love Lady Gaga. They even watch reruns of Friends, for gosh sakes.

So I was surprised to hear that most of my students have never heard of The Wizard of Oz. Amazing! I've seen that movie, like, a hundred times. It's an integral part of American culture, like Mom & apple pie, yet no one here has heard of it.

They have, however, heard the song Over the Rainbow, but not Judy Garland's version. They know the version sung by Israel Kamakawiwo'ole because it's used in so many TV commercials these days.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Location Independence

For the past couple of years, I've been trying to find a way to become "location independent", able to move about the planet freely without the shackles of a conventional life. Since I'm not independently wealthy, however, I have to find a way to make money while I'm flitting around the globe.

I've come a long way to realizing this dream. Teaching English as a second language allows me to go just about anywhere in the world to live & work for a year or two at a time. When my contract ends, I can just pick up & move to the next location. How awesome is that?

I've recently been reading about people who are truly location independent, real nomads traveling for a living as freelance writers, online tutors, & document translators. I wonder if I could do that too.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Where's the Soy Sauce?

You're not going to believe this, but I have yet to see anyone using soy sauce in Shanghai. At home, soy sauce is a staple condiment on the table at any self-respecting Chinese restaurant. But here in Shanghai it is conspicuously absent.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Living Without a Car

I just realized that it's been over a year since I drove a car. The last car I owned was this lovely 4-wheel drive Tracker, which I sold along with the rest of my possessions just before I moved out of the country last year.

Since then, I've gotten accustomed to life without a car. It's certainly environmently friendly, & it's much cheaper since I don't have to spend money on gas or repairs. It's probably even good for my health because of all the extra exercise I'm getting. Still, there are definitely things I miss about driving.

I miss being able to get from Point A to Point B by myself, without the aide of a bus driver. I miss road trips, singing at the top of my lungs to road tunes as I cover the miles to nowhere. I miss the feeling of operating heavy machinery, especially if it has a clutch.

It's funny how something so basic as driving can be nostalgic. Perhaps those of you who are still driving through rush hour traffic every day can help to remind me just how annoying driving really is.

Monday, July 12, 2010


One of my classes today was about gestures around the world, & how some gestures could be perfectly acceptable in one country, but be utterly offensive in another.

At one point in the lesson, I showed photos of several gestures & asked which ones the students recognized. They said they use the "V" for victory as well as the "OK" sign here in China. They also said they'd seen the "thumbs up" sign, but had never seen the "thumbs down" version.

When they saw the "middle finger" gesture, they said they'd seen it in foreign films, but they don't use it here. I asked if there was any gesture used in China that was really offensive, like the middle finger is in the West. They said that the most offensive gesture you can make is to point at someone. (Memories of Mom: Don't point!)

Interesting. Could the Chinese be that positive that they don't need negative gestures? Not even a thumbs down? Or were the students just trying not to offend me?

Saturday, July 10, 2010

I'm Just Here for the Savasana

For the last several months, my shoulder has been hurting me. I thought it was because I always carry my bag, which is full of books & journals, on that shoulder. I've switched my bag to the other shoulder, but after several weeks, there's been no improvement. My shoulder hurts enough so that I can no longer enjoy my favorite yoga pose: savasana.

I asked one of the yoga instructors at the yoga studio near my apartment what I can do to relax my shoulder, & she suggested acupuncture. So now I'm looking for an acupuncturist in China. Talk about your cultural experiences.

Friday, July 9, 2010


I've been trying to get someone to teach me to play mahjong (麻將 ma2 jiang4) ever since I got to Shanghai, but no one seems to take me seriously - or maybe they think it's too complicated to try to explain in English. But I'm determined to learn how to play before I leave China.

Today when I was poking around the tourist market, I saw a cute little mahjong set in one of the shops. I thought, if I bring my own playing pieces to the school, perhaps it will inspire some students to take on my project with me.

I asked how much the mahjong set was. The sales lady clicked on the keys of her calculator & then showed it to me: 180 RMB (about US $25). Ha! I said, & started to walk out. The sales lady gently grabbed my backpack & pulled me back into her shop. "How much you wanna pay?" She asked. I offered 20 RMB. "Impossible!" She exclaimed. I started to leave again. Again she pulled me back.

After a few more rounds of this, we settled on 40 RMB (a little less than US $6), & I had my very own mahjong set. (Looks like I'm getting a little better at haggling.) Now to recruit some people to play with.

The tiles are really tiny - little bite-sized pieces of plastic - but this mahjong set is the perfect size for traveling, & certainly won't take up much room in my suitcase when I leave here. Hm. I wonder how that fits into my 100 Thing Challenge.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

That's My Town!

I saw this guy wearing a Phoenix Suns jersey & shorts on the subway today. He didn't speak any English, so in my elementary Chinese, I tried to tell him why I wanted a photo with him. I was able to say, "I'm American. That's my..." Ugh! I don't know the word for "city"! Okay, try again. I pointed at his shirt & said in Chinese, "I live there." That didn't work either. (I'm sure my pronunciation is atrocious.) Finally I pulled out my camera & gestured that I wanted a photo with him. He was still confused but consented.

The rest of the passengers on the train thought the whole thing was hilarious, of course. Crazy foreigners.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010


The other day, one of my students said to me, "Some actions of you are like Phoebe on Friends." I took it as a compliment. I always did like Phoebe.

On a seemingly unrelated note, my favorite dumpling vendor has gotten used to me saying "我饿死了! wo3 e4 si3 le! I'm starving!" when I approach his cart. So now when he sees me coming down the street, he yells out the phrase: "E-si-le!", & the rest of the street vendors chuckle & repeat "E-si-le!" I guess that's my name on the streets now. 

The other day when he yelled his usual greeting, "E-si-le!", I noticed that it sounded a lot like "Ursula", which was the name of Phoebe's twin sister on Friends. My blog post comes craftily full circle. 

After thought: I guess it's also the name of Disney's evil sea witch, but that's okay. We all have a maverick side.

Monday, July 5, 2010

An Authentic Experience

I have always loved traveling to new places & seeing what life in other countries is like. While traveling, I have tried to look for the "authenticity" of a place - to experience the real people & go to the local hangouts. I don't want to be conned by the tourist facade that so many destinations present to travelers. I want to dig deeper. (It seems many other travelers agree with me.)

I have now spent a year or so living outside of the US. What better way to experience the real deal, right? No beach resorts, no tourist traps. Just me & the locals. Dig deep, I say!

However, I'm starting to understand that underneath the tourist lacquer, local life is pretty much the same no matter where you go. People all over the world go to work every day, buy their groceries on their way home, watch TV to relax, or maybe meet friends for drinks on the weekends. In essence, they spend their lives in the pursuit of happiness, just like I do.

When you're a tourist, exciting things happen one after the other. Paragliding, swimming with sharks, & sipping on a maitai while getting a massage could all happen in the same day. But when you're off the tourist track, these things are as likely to happen as they are at home, which is to say that they're not likely to happen at all.

Turns out that the "authentic" experience isn't all that thrilling, really, though it is quite interesting. Daily life happens at a much more subtle pace. Amazing things do happen - the key is to have the patience to wait for them.

Sunday, July 4, 2010


Thank goodness all those intelligent, moral, passionate men decided to get together on a hot July day to sign a piece of paper that would eventually allow me the freedom to discover what they were so passionate about.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Money to Burn

The economic crisis back home set in motion the series of events that got me where I am today - teaching English in Shanghai. I've been living out of the US for a little over a year now, & sometimes I think I've lost touch with that economic reality. I just talked with a friend in the States who says that the economy has yet to turn around, & the US Department of Labor still shows a 9.5% unemployment rate.

In contrast, business is certainly booming in Asia. Last year when I was in Vietnam, it seemed the whole country was under construction, & people were spending like there was no tomorrow.

Here in Shanghai it's the same thing. New buildings seem to appear out of nowhere. I walk down the same street twice & it's been magically transformed with new sidewalks & landscaping. & there are towering shopping malls everywhere.

When there's a public holiday like the recent Dragon Boat Festival, I always ask my students how they plan to celebrate the day, hoping to get some insight into Chinese culture. But most of them just say they're going to spend the day shopping. 

I guess that's why so many foreigners are moving to China - there's a lot more money here.

You can read more about the above photo at chinaSMACK.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Computer Problems

My laptop is only a year & a half old, but a couple of days ago, a few of my computer keys suddenly stopped working. The B, N, spacebar, & the arrow keys all kaput. I asked one of my students who knows a lot about computers if she knew what the problem might be. She did a quick search online & found that this is a common problem with Dell laptops. Hm.

We went to the computer market together to see what they could do for me. One guy wanted to install a new keyboard on my laptop for 450 RMB (about US $65). Although the keys would have been stamped with Chinese characters, which I thought would have been really cool, it was a bit expensive.

The next vendor offered an external keyboard for 180 RMB (about US $25). That was a much better price, but the keyboard was huge - the standard desktop size. It would take the laptop out of my laptop. Besides, it was probably fake.

I decided to take a look across the street at Walmart to see if they had any better options. There I found an external keyboard just the right size to fit over the existing keyboard on my laptop for 59 RMB (about US $8). Score!

Thursday, July 1, 2010


I was rudely awaken at 5:00 this morning by a gang of mosquitos. I guess it's time to close the window & put on the air conditioner.