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Monday, March 28, 2011

Concert Cancelled

The Jue Music + Art Festival is going on this month in Shanghai with lots of really cool art & music events on the schedule. Artists from all over the world have come to town to participate.

Last year during the music fest I saw a really cool band from Mongolia called Hanggai. When I saw that they were on the bill this year as well I was stoked.

One of my Shanghai friends is also from Mongolia. He's in with the band, so he had a pre-party for them at his art gallery before the concert. I was hoping they would play a little for us there, but I guess they were tired from their flight in, so we just hung around drinking Mongolian whiskey & munching on Mongolian snacks.

The concert was to start at 9:00 at one of the few dedicated music venues in town. We got there early to get a good spot at the front. We waited & waited for the band to come on. The audience started getting restless around 10:00. Finally at 10:30 a guy came on stage saying that the authorities had cancelled the concert. In the English version, they didn't give any reason for the cancellation - they just said that we should line up at the box office for a refund.

I can't imagine why the concert would be cancelled. All of the band members were there. I had seen them all earlier in the day, & after the announcement they all came on stage to thank everyone for coming. It couldn't have been the content of their songs either. Although I don't speak Mongolian, I'm pretty sure their songs are all about the grasslands & horses & drinking.

But anyway, the concert was cancelled & I was super bummed. As a consolation, I spent about an hour on YouTube watching their videos. These guys are absolutely amazing.

Take a listen:

Borulai's Lullaby
Throat singing

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Spanish Language Book Club

A few weeks ago I discovered a Spanish language book group here in Shanghai. I contacted them & they told me where to pick up the book, which I did with astounding success.

I spent the time between then & now engrossed in a travel memoir written by a Spanish man who traveled to China in the early 1990's - when China had just opened its borders to foreign tourists. I finished reading the book the day before the book club meeting.

I was excited to join the club, not only because I loved the book & wanted to talk about it with the group, but also because I haven't had much opportunity to speak Spanish since I left Arizona, & I'm feeling a bit rusty.

When I got to the cafe, everyone was warm & welcoming. Siéntate y placticar con nosotros. We had a great discussion about the book & shared some yummy Yunnan food together. It was delightful.

At one point someone asked me where I was from. The US - Arizona. "But have you lived in a Spanish-speaking country?" they asked. No - well, unless you consider the US a Spanish-speaking country. They were surprised & told me I have a Mexican accent. Ha! Of course, right?

But that means that all is not lost as far as my Spanish-speaking abilities. They say that one way to know that you speak a language fluently is when people stop complimenting you on your ability to speak it. No one at this book club meeting said anything about how well I spoke.

On the other hand, every time I utter anything in Chinese, people all around ooh & ah: "Your Chinese is soooo good!" It's great to have the encouragement, but it looks like I have a long way to go before I can say I'm fluent in Chinese.

Thursday, March 24, 2011


MaryAnne over at A Totally Impractical Guide to Shanghai is surveying the masses about the need for travel, & I got the chance to put in my two cents.

She asked me to break it down into four categories: Leaving, Staying, Maintaining Stability and The Future. Here's a tidbit from each section.


Motivation? Economics, adventure, a need to be unsettled for a while. I had lived in Phoenix for 13 years & was bored with the sameness of daily life. I wanted to shake things up a bit.


Most people seem to want to settle, even if they moved to China to do it. They don’t understand my nomadic cravings – nor do I really, but there you have it.

Maintaining Stability

I’m restless. Not sure why, but I’m not trying to figure that out any more – or change it. I’m starting to understand that I should just go with it – who else has the opportunities that I do? It would be a shame to waste it on settling.

The Future

Can I stick it out? Do I have the guts to stay? I’m not sure.

Want to read the rest? Click here!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Miss Communication

It's been an interesting internet week in China. My connection is super slow & I'm having problems accessing my blog & a few other websites. Today is the first day in several that I got it to work. I hope this doesn't last too long...

I really miss the internet on the outside.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

What's That You Say?

When I was living in Arizona, one of the most frequent comments that people would make when they found out that I speak Spanish was "It must be nice to be able to understand what they're saying about you".

However, in all my comings & goings around Spanish speakers, I never once heard anyone I didn't know talk about me in Spanish as I waited in the line at the grocery store - or anywhere else for that matter.

Of course, I did my fair share of eavesdropping, but the conversations that I heard were almost always about mundane things - "Did you get the avocados?", "How much were the tortillas?", "Papa called & said to hurry up with the piñata." They were in their own worlds, talking about what was important to them - I didn't figure into their chit-chat.

I've been in China for a little over a year now, & I've been earnestly trying to add Chinese to my foreign-language repertoire. My current language studies include eavesdropping on other people's conversations to see how much I can understand. I spend my days surrounded by a cacophany of unintelligible language, but each day I understand just a little bit more.

The other day I noticed that I can now get the gist of what people are saying - for the most part. Even though I don't understand the details, I can tell if someone is talking about their plans for the weekend or what they had for lunch. & surprisingly, I've started to hear other people talking about me.

I often notice people noticing me. I'm a foreigner here & people are amazed by that. When I step on the subway, people often do a double-take then quickly look away, trying not to stare. Some people take photos of me with their cell phones, trying to make it look like they're checking their email. Children point at me & tell their parents they see a laowai, a foreigner.

All of this I've been experiencing from the start. But now that my Chinese is kind of decent, I'm also starting to hear people say things like, "Hey Zhou, look at the foreigner!" or "That foreigner sure is tall" or "I bet she's from England." Often I pretend that I don't understand, allowing myself to be the object of speculation, the mysterious white alien. It's kind of fun. My next language learning challenge will be to actually respond to their comments - in a nice way, of course.

Learning another language opens lots of doors for us. We can learn about another culture, speak to people from other countries, & get a much better understanding of the world around us. It also takes away the mystery & makes what was once alien & exotic seem terrestrial. Our fantasy version of a culture is tranformed into reality - a reality where we're not so different from each other after all.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Barbie Shanghai Closes

Well that didn't last long, did it?

I guess Barbie doesn't appeal much to the Chinese market, where Hello Kitty reigns & women wear contact lenses that make them look like a deer in headlights. Cute & round is much more popular here than tall & sexy.

Perhaps a whole store dedicated to Skipper would have been more successful.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Spring! (Almost)

You may remember that I recently joined the circus. Well, not really. But my new apartment is right next to it. In the photo below, the golden dome is the circus arena, & the cluster of white high rises down the street is my apartment complex. 

I walk by the circus at least once a week to go to the shopping center that's down the street the other way, so I was shocked to hear the other day that behind the circus is one of Shanghai's largest parks. You would never know it from the street, but I took a look on Google maps & there it was - a sprawling park filled with lakes & trees & bridges & people, tucked away right behind the acrobats.

Sunday was a particularly beautiful spring day - the sun was shining & the air was just warm enough. I filled my backpack with park-going paraphernalia (my camera, my Kindle, water, snacks), & went to check it out.

I paid 2 RMB (about US 30 cents) at the gate to get in, & spent a couple of hours walking around (it's a really big park). Then I found a nice spot by the lake where I could sit back & read my book.

On such a nice day - being that I'm in China - I expected hordes of people all bumping into each other as they tried to claim a small patch of nature. Instead, even though there were a lot of people there, I didn't feel the least bit crowded. We all had plenty of room to enjoy the park.

The day I was there, the trees & flowers were on the verge of bursting into action. I can't wait to see what it looks like a couple of weeks from now when everything is in full bloom.

I'm so glad to have found this park so close to my apartment. It was a great place to spend my weekend.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011


The Shanghai Dolls Book Club is reading two selections represented at the Shanghai Literary Festival for April (Emma Donoghue's Room) & May (Chris Tsiolkas's The Slap). This week, we went together to listen to see Emma Donoghue speak.

Donoghue's latest novel Room is about a woman who is kidnapped & held prisoner in a backyard shed for seven years. The story is told from the perspective of her five-year-old son, born of the continuous rapes that she endures while she is imprisoned. It sounds frightfully heavy, but because the story is told through the eyes of a naive child, it is actually quite digestible.

The author started her talk at the Literary Festival by reading a short passage from her book & then took questions from the audience. She was warm & engaging with a great sense of humor. It made me want to start reading the book right away, so after the talk, I downloaded the e-book on my Kindle (zap!). Once I got home I spent the rest of the evening engrossed in the story.

The boy who narrates the  novel describes everything that's inside the Room as real, & everything that's outside the Room as TV, fantasy. As I flipped the pages (clicked?), I started thinking about my life here in China. I often feel like life here is not altogether real, like I'm watching it happen through a lense. I live in a kind of bubble - or room - of my own, moving through Outside but still separated from it.

When I'm at home, I'm alone in my 10-foot by 10-foot bedroom, reading or studying or chatting with friends on Skype. When I'm at work, I'm surrounded by Westerners - people like me. (Since we're writing English language learning materials, we're all native speakers of English.)

My contact with Chinese life is short & intermittent - the morning commute on the subway, a 10-second conversation with a shop keeper, giving directions to the taxi driver. Often I feel I'm invisible - life happens around me & I'm only an unseen observer. Other times I feel I'm on display as people stare & point & snap photos of me, the foreigner - for many Chinese people, I'm not entirely real. But either way I'm mentally separated from it all.

Every once in a while, I have to remind myself that I live in China. China! CHINA?! How did that happen? It's not an altogether real part of my life. My job is real, my room is real, my Western friends are real. But China? China is just TV. Fantasy.

Monday, March 7, 2011


I've spent the last several evenings with a new private student. He's the owner of a petro-chemical company here in Shanghai & wants to improve his English so that he can talk with his American clients, as well as negotiate prices with his American vendors. He was adamant that he should have an American tutor so that he can learn to understand the accent.

We started off our lessons by practicing the TH sound, which lots of people have problems with. He haltingly spurts out sentences like, "Thelma & Ethel withheld their wrath until both of them were withered," & I stick my tongue out between my teeth & point to it for him to model. I imagine that if you're sitting at the next table, it's pretty funny stuff.

We're also working on de-Chinglish-izing his English. He says things like, "I'm heartily pleased to make your acquaintance," & I help him change it to, "Nice to meet you." He giggles at the difference, happy to finally have someone to set him straight.

I'm happy as well - he pays me 300 RMB (US $45) per hour - eight hours with him has paid my rent for next month. & the best part is that it's not like work to me at all. I've really missed teaching since I got my nine-to-five, & with this new student, I get to have my cake & eat it too. Thanks, I'll have seconds. Nom nom nom.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Shanghai Literary Festival

What a great month to be in Shanghai! Both the Literary Festival & the Jue Music+Art Festival are going on right now. All of my free time is filled with books, music & art. Life is good.

I was in Shanghai last year during the Literary Festival, but wasn't able to go to any of the events because of my teaching schedule. English teaching jobs generally require you to work nights & weekends, which is just when all of the author lectures & events were scheduled. But now that I have a Monday to Friday office job, I'm free to rub elbows with all the other bookish people in Shanghai.

I got tickets for seven of the events, including the Literary Death Match. I don't know what that is, but the name is enough for me. I was also lucky enough to get a ticket to see Peter Hessler, the famous author who wrote River Town & Oracle Bones, both fascinating accounts of life in China.

I went to my first festival event this weekend. The atmosphere was comfortable & the audience was chummy. I passed around my new Kindle for all to ooh & aah over. Then I downloaded a few of the books whose authors I will see in the coming weeks - one click & I had the e-books in the palm of my hand. The best thing of all is that all those books are still just one thing :)

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Mini Laptop Review

For the last several years, I've been trying to pare down my possesions to make myself that much more mobile. In the beginning, I exchanged my desktop computer for a laptop, disconnecting myself from one dedicated location. That was essential to being a traveler.

However, the laptop that I bought weighs seven or eight pounds, which adds a lot of weight to my luggage. Not only is it cumbersome to carry, but it sometimes affects what I can & can't travel with because of space or weight restrictions.

Because of that, I had been looking for a smaller, lighter alternative. My parents helped solve this problem when they got me a netbook for Christmas, which I was able to take with me on my trip home, as I went from Harbin to Los Angeles to Tennessee to Phoenix back to Shanghai. I found that it was so much better than traveling with my larger laptop. It takes up much less space & is light-weight & comfortable enough to carry in a backpack.

The only downside is that the screen is fairly small. That's not a problem for routine email checks or quick Google searches, but it's a bit of a challenge for longer work sessions, although it's not impossible. It's something to consider, though, since my ultimate goal is to be able to work remotely while wandering the globe. I'll need a device that will let me do that easily.

I'll be curious to see what the iPad2 is like - & there are rumors that they're even working on an iPad3. My techie insider friend Michael says that the iPad isn't good enough to replace a normal computer just yet - it's more like an iPhone but bigger. If that's the case, then I'm not ready to invest in one just yet.

Luckily technology is improving by the second, so there may soon be something that's the best of all worlds: small, light weight, with a decent sized screen at a reasonable price that will do everything a normal computer will do. For now though, this netbook is the best alternative that I've seen for traveling.

What do you think? What is the one best electronic device to bring along for long-term travel?

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Finding My Way

I recently came across a Spanish langauge book group in Shanghai & contacted them to get more information. The organizer said their next meeting was in a couple of weeks, & that the book was available at a copy shop on such-&-such road next to so-&-so restaurant.

So the other night I went in search of said copy shop. When I got to such-&-such road, I couldn't find the so-&-so restaurant, so I started looking in store windows for what might be a copy shop.

Mind you, copy shops in China do not in any way look like copy shops in the US. In the US, I would look for something like this:

In China, it looks more like this:

You gotta know what you're looking for.

After a couple of passes up & down the short street, I finally found a copy shop & ducked inside. Squeezed in among the piles of boxes on one side & a couple of boisterous children on the other, I asked the proprietor for the 西班牙语读书俱乐部的书, the Spanish book club book. He had no idea what I was talking about. Hm.

I asked if there was another copy shop nearby & the man pointed me down the street & around the corner. Off I went. I found the second copy shop & asked for the same Spanish book club book. I had the right place! I got my book, paid my 50 RMB (about US $7.60), & left the shop feeling a bit giddy.

This would never have happened a year ago. Not only would I not have been able to communicate what I needed in Chinese, but I wouldn't have been able to find the first copy shop at all because I would have been looking for a Kinkos. But now, although I'm still floundering as I roam around Shanghai, I experience tiny successes like this, & it makes it all worth the effort.