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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Back in Shanghai

I'm back in Shanghai after nearly a month away. I've spent the last couple of days re-acclimating to my life here in China. My trip to the US already seems like a dream - a wonderful dream.

It had been a year & a half since I had left the US, & I was a little nervous about all that reverse culture shock that I kept hearing about. I wondered how things had changed at home - how I had changed since I had been gone.

Turns out things were just as I left them. Sure, some things changed - there was a Lowes where the car dealership used to be, & one of my favorite vegan restaurants had closed down - but nothing was drastically different. It felt as if I had never left - like I had simply imagined the time in between.

Even though I was so happy to see my friends & family again, I didn't feel a sense of longing to return home. It was enough to visit home for a month, to recharge & reset. But in the end, I still feel the wanderlust that drove me to leave it all behind in the first place - which has got me thinking even more now about leaving Shanghai.

Don't get me wrong - Shanghai is a great place to live. I've said it countless times - it's really easy to live here, comfortable. But that's not what I want. I don't want to settle down in Shanghai - or anywhere else for that matter - at least not now. & I feel like I know enough about Shanghai, & it's time to move on. It won't be for at least a few more months, but I've got my sights on yonder shores. I guess I'm not done traveling just yet.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Thursday, February 17, 2011

China Surpasses Japan

It's official. China now has the world's second largest economy & Japan moves to the number three spot. It's no surprise. We've been expecting this for a while now, but somehow the official statistics make it more significant.

I'm not sure about the rest of China, but Shanghai is definitely a teeming metropolis. It seems the favorite pastime there is shopping, & there is no shortage of jobs as more & more international companies set up shop in China.

Still, I doubt that we really need to fear China, as the US media would like us to believe. No one is going to be forced to learn Chinese anytime soon. English is still the global language. The Chinese people find it increasingly important to learn English, often doubling or tripling their salary if they speak English fluently. Speaking English has become a status symbol that Chinese people are happy to flaunt.

& the Chinese government doesn't seem to have imperialist intentions either. They don't really want to take over the world - they just want a legitimate place on the world map, as any first world country would.

That all works out great for me. The importance of learning English paired with a booming Chinese economy means more opportunities in the ESL field, & an ever improving standard of living as an ESL professional. Just as I did, more & more people are turning their sights away from the US job market, & their eyes are landing on China.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

It's Good to Be Home

It's so good to be home in Arizona! The weather is gorgeous, the sky is blue blue blue. The palm trees sway & the mountains glow golden in the light of the setting sun. Oh how I've missed the desert.

I've spent the last few days visiting my old haunts with old friends - I went to my favorite bookstore, had yummy Ethiopian food, & shared beers at my usual brewery. I even went to both Whole Foods & Trader Joe's to buy food to take back with me to China.

In the afternoon, I passed by my old house to check on it. It's sitting there unlived in, but pretty much the same as I left it. I could see through the fence that my vegetable garden is still there, though there is nothing growing in it. The poppies that I planted several years ago are starting to spring up. My front yard was always so beautiful in the spring time.

Driving around town I felt almost like an imposter. I was going here & there, not needing to ask for directions, knowing the best route to take between stops - like I live here. It's so strange. It feels so comfortable here - like I never left. I have to keep reminding myself that I live in China now.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Modern Vending Machines

I'm in the US this month for a visit. Last week I was in Tennessee celebrating my dad's 70th birthday, & this week I'm in Phoenix celebrating my 40th. On my way to Phoenix, I passed through Dallas again.

I have heard of vending machines in Japan selling everything from live crabs to new cars to old underwear. Apparently the idea is starting to catch on in the US as well. In the Dallas airport, I saw a vending machine selling electronics. It offered basic accessories like earphones or cellphone cases, as well as relatively expensive items like cameras and MP3 players. You don't even have to worry if this machine will take your crumpled up dollars - just swipe your credit card & you've got what you need.

I think it will be a while before machines like this start popping up in China. Vending machines are not that common there, even for small things like snacks & beverages. Plus, the economy is still largely based on cash, so a $300 camera probably wouldn't be a very popular item. But in the US, where everyone uses credit & debit cards instead of cash, it might not be long before we're buying ties & flowers & everything else from vending machines just like they do in Japan.

Sunday, February 13, 2011


I'm sure it was like this before I left the US for Asia, but since I've been back visiting, I've noticed that there is an amazing number of comercials on American TV for all sorts of pharmaceutical drugs. Many of the ads list frightening side effects like heart failure & suicidal tendancies. Sounds like the drugs could be more dangerous than whatever disease people think they have.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Chinglish versus Spanglish

All over Shanghai, you can find menus, food packaging, road signs & more in both Chinese & English, although a lot of the English is not exactly accurate - more like Chinglish.

Now that I'm back in the US for a visit, I'm noticing that even in Small Town, Tennessee you can find bilingual food packaging in Spanish & English. However, I think the Spanish is generally pretty good here - not a lot of Spanglish to be found.

I wonder why there's such a discrepancy in the quality of translation. Is it because we've spoken Spanish for much longer here in the US? Is it because the Chinese companies can't afford professional translators? Was the Spanish in the US ever that awful? Will the Chinglish in China eventually be eradicated? 
It will be interesting to see what happens as China becomes more & more open to the West - not only to the quality of the English translations, but also to the rest of life in China.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Thanks for Serving

On my way to Chattanooga to see my parents, I had a connecting flight in Dallas. There were several soldiers in the airport, walking to & from their gates. I overheard some people asking this one or that one if they were coming in or going out, a little chit chat about the weather here versus the weather there. Almost everyone thanked the soldier for serving before they parted ways.

Dallas might be a hub for traveling soldiers, so I could have seen more of them there than I would have at a different airport. Even so, I feel that this part of US life just isn't a part of my life in China. In Shanghai, I follow the news from home, but what I read seems like news from a far-off land, like reading about an earthquake in Indonesia - tragic but somehow not altogether real.

I wonder if that's because I live far from home - because the US is a far-off land to me. Or do people living in the US also feel this way?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Wednesday, February 9, 2011


I spent last weekend in Los Angeles at my brother's house.

A year & a half ago, when I first set off for the Great Beyond, I left several boxes containing photos & memories with my brother - the last layers of the onion of possessions that I was unable to peel. These boxes contained my history, proof that my memories were real, & I wasn't ready to give that up yet.

Now, back at my brother's house a year & a half later, I've had time to detach a little from those boxes that I left here filled with all the stuff that was so important to me. I spent a whole day in the garage going through everything, picking out the most important pieces for scanning, & reluctantly throwing out the rest.

It was hard to let go of it all, to know that I'll never be able to read any more of my silly tales from junior high or browse through the drawings & poems from my high school days. But in the end, I think the purging was good. It gets me that much closer to where I want to be mentally - free from attachments to material goods & thus less limited as I wander.

After a whole day of discarding, I was left with just one box of stuff - the core of the onion. I'd call that progress.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Price of Gas

Wow. Gas is $4 a gallon, huh? I haven't thought about the price of gas in forever. I haven't driven a car in a year & a half. I think the last time I filled a gas tank, I paid about $2 a gallon & shook my head incredulous at that. I have no idea what gas costs in Shanghai - not even a clue.

It's interesting how something that used to be such a big part of my life - driving - has become little more than a passing thought. I definitely miss driving, & dream of road trips often, but on a day-to-day basis, driving is something other people do.

I wonder if you can become a bad driver for lack of practice. I think I drove almost every day of my adult life up until I left the US for Vietnam. But since then, I haven't driven a car even once. I did try my hand at a scooter once in Vietnam, but that wasn't one of my best moments.

I'm not sure if I'll get the chance to drive while I'm in the US this time around. Since I'm visiting three different cities, I thought about renting a car & really getting some drive time in. But the car rental would have been $1200 plus $4 a gallon in gas, whereas the flight from LA to Chattanooga to Phoenix & back to LA was under $500. No contest.

Maybe by the next time I come back for a visit, they'll have the whole oil versus alternative fuel thing figured out. Maybe instead of driving gas powered vehicles, everyone will have electric cars & the price of gas won't matter. Maybe.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

In Los Angeles

After an uneventful 12-hour flight, I landed in Los Angeles. It was slooooow getting through customs, but I finally made it out & met my brother on the other side. We promptly headed over to Real Food Daily for some proper vegan food. California is heaven for vegetarians.

After dinner we went back to the house, where I was greeted by the family dog, Nikko.

Even though I'm on China time, I had been traveling for a full day, so I had no problem falling asleep. I guess the jet lag will catch up with me later.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Harbin: Dumpling Party

The last night I was in Harbin, the hostel where I was staying threw a dumpling party. Dumplings are the traditional food of Chinese New Year, bringing good fortune to those who eat them. Everyone rolled out dumpling dough & filled the circles with a mixture of vegetables & meat. Then they boiled up the dumplings for everyone. They didn't last long, but the free beer flowed all night, as promised.

Although fireworks had been going off intermittently all day, a little before midnight all hell broke loose as the whole town started setting off all manner of sparklers, crackers & whizzers. We went outside to take a look & to play around with our own fireworks. This would never happen in the US.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Happy Chinese New Year!

Chinese New Year is also called Spring Festival in China - it's a time for new beginnings & looking to the future. People put on new clothes, especially if they're red. There's red underwear in all the stores, along with lots of other red new years gear. I even got myself a pair of red socks for the occasion.

People start the year by hanging bright red banners with good luck sayings on the doors to their homes, & give each other red & gold envelopes with money inside, thereby increasing their favor with the gods - the gods they don't believe in any more.

Chinese culture bases a lot of its traditions on word play. For example, at the new year, people eat fish because the word for fish ( yú) sounds like the word for abundance ( yú).

One of my favorite plays on words is the one pictured here. The character for good fortune is 福, pronounced "fú". Often people hang this character upside down during Spring Festival. The word for upside down is 倒了 dào le, which sounds like the word for arrived: 到了 dào le. So if you hang the good fortune character upside down, then it's "fu dào le" - "fu" is upside down, or good fortune has arrived - a great sentiment for the new year.

Happy New Year to you all! 新年快乐!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Harbin Snow Festival

There are really only a few things to do here in Harbin in January, when it's 20 below outside. You can go to the Ice Festival, or you can venture out to the Snow Festival. I went to the Ice Festival a couple of nights ago, so today I thought I might as well see what the Snow Festival was all about.

I asked at the reception desk at the hostel where I'm staying how one might get to the Snow Festival since there was no tour offered this time. They said I could take this bus, then get off at that stop & switch to another bus, which would take you here, then take a taxi the rest of the way. Or I could just walk across the river - half an hour & you're there.

They weren't kidding. I got to the river & found it completely frozen over with a definite footpath leading across. Half an hour & I was on the other side, where I paid 150 RMB (about US $23) entrance to the snow park.

Inside, it looked as if they had randomly plopped down huge cubes of packed snow all over the park, after which the sculptors had at it with their snow chisles. Here are some of the incredible results.

Of course these photos don't even come close to showing how awesome these sculptures are. This last one won first prize in some category or other - it was in Chinese - but I'm guessing it was for being really friggin' badass.

The festival has been open for about a month now, & many of the sculptures are showing some evidence of evaporation. You know how if you leave a tray of ice cubes in the freezer for too long, eventually the ice cubes turn into tiny slivers of their former selves? Well, apparently the same thing happens to snow sculptures.

I found myself wondering how long it takes for the sculptures to completely melt - or evaporate - away when I came across another area of the park. Here, I found that the winners from previous years have been immortalized in concrete, to be enjoyed winter or summer. Here's the overall winner from 2003.

At around 2:00 pm the sun was starting to dip in the sky - we're pretty far north here - so I headed back to the hostel to warm up over a bowl of noodles.

I'd call the trip to Harbin a win. My super duper winter force field did the trick, & I got to see some pretty cool snow & ice sculptures. Now I'm looking forward to the next part of my trip, which involves taking in some California sun - I leave for LA tomorrow.