1. The food is awesome.
2. I have my own bedroom. All to myself. I don’t have to share a tiny, hotel room-esque space with a roommate.
3. My bed is so much more comfortable than the beds in the dorm. Kaitlyn bought a “mattress pad” at Tesco. Didn’t help much.
4. My host mom and the ayi (housekeeper) do my laundry.
5. I don’t have to carry my toiletries into the bathroom.
6. Also don’t have to use a sketchy hall bath shower.
7. Did I mention the food?
8. I spend about a 1/3 of what everyone else spends on food (theoretically) because I get 2 meals a day at home.
9. My wifi is fast enough to load YouTube videos and stream Netflix.
10. Did I mention my own room?
11. Coming home to a family and having a mom and a dad who take care of you helps a lot with the homesickness thing.
12. Did I mention they do my laundry?
13. I don’t have to join a gym because I walk 25 minutes to school and 25 minutes home everyday.
14. Did I mention the wifi thing?
1. The food is awesome.
Wandering the Nanjing Massacre Memorial on Sunday made me realize just how little I know about Asian history. And I know more than most given that I’m a Chinese major and my major requires me to study culture and history as well as the language. Non-Western history just isn’t taught in American schools, and it both saddens and angers me a little. I spent twelve years in the public school system and I can go into great detail about every major Western conflict of the twentieth century because it was taught to me in four different grades, but before choosing to study an Asian language, I could barely tell you anything about China’s history. Except that it was long and had a bunch of important discoveries and emperors and that there was a wall. But it’s not just Asia, I’m equally ignorant about Africa, the Middle East, and Latin and South America. I can tell you about South Africa and Brazil because I took a class on the BRICS countries. I can tell you about China because it’s my major. Other than that, I got nothing. But being here, seeing the world from a very different, distinctively non-Western perspective, I’ve come to understand there is so much about the world I do not understand, but that if I want to be successful in the global society in which my generation will find itself a part of very, very soon, it’s something I need to start working on.
In the past (and I’m speaking to the oh lets say, pre-WW1 era-and this is purely my own opinion/conjecture), it makes sense maybe to not teach Asian, Africa, and South American history. Those parts of the world were not significant in comparison to the established Western world. I’m not saying it was right, I’m just saying it makes sense. But now, in an ever-globalizing international world, we need to educate ourselves about the other places. The up and coming countries, the countries where significant portions of our money and influence are focused. It’s a lot of information because the world is a big place, but there are things we need to understand about other countries, not just the US and Europe. Four out of five BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) are not in North America or Europe. The MIST countries (Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey- the new acronym coined by the same Goldman Sachs economist, Jim O’Neill, that came up with BRICS) represent Asia, North America and the Eastern Europe. The BRICS countries are already becoming major players, and the MIST countries have a desire to be.
The world is changing and so is our place in it. That’s neither a good thing nor a bad thing, merely a fact of life. Things change and we must adapt. One way we can adapt now is to learn more. Education has always been a tool employed to assist in transition and to me seems the most powerful. So I intend to learn as much as I can. Like I’ve said, I really like learning.
This weekend marked another important milestone in my China adventures-the first trip out of Shanghai. CIEE split the program into four groups, each visiting a city someone in the general vicinity of Shanghai. Kaitlyn and I decided to take on Nanjing (one of the cities on our must-see list).
So when we first heard weekend, we assumed that means the whole weekend, you know, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Maybe even leave Thursday night because our program doesn’t have classes on Fridays. No, in China, or at least according to our program, weekend means the crack of dawn Saturday morning to early Sunday evening (because they have to get us back in time to do homework Sunday night). I can understand leaving early, cut down on the cost a little, the other cities don’t have as much to see so they wouldn’t need two days to visit. But when weekend means be on campus at 6:15 AM, which meant I had to be up at 5 in order to schlep myself and my overnight bag (which didn’t seem so heavy when I packed it but was killing me by the end of my 20 minute walk), it kills the excitement a little.
Early start aside, I had a fantastic (albeit exhausting) weekend.
Nanjing lies inland to the west and slightly south of Shanghai, two hours by train. The train to Nanjing brought my grand total of train trips to two (although there will be many more before the semester is over). It’s a mode of transportation that we don’t really think about too much in the US, but that’s the way to go in many other places around the world. It’s convenient, fast, and inexpensive. I’ve decided I like trains a lot. It’s also mesmerizing to me to sit by the window and watch the country go by. It’s not the same experience as flying (plus no 30 minute window on arrival and departure where your tray table and seat back have to be in the upright position). There’s too much to look at out the window. This is the real China, not that international China I’ve been surrounded by in Shanghai.
It never ceases to amaze me the number of people that travel. In airports, train stations, the subway, the masses of people moving from one place to another always overwhelms me. Being in not only a city but a country that is so heavily populated brings this into perspective. People are always going, moving, but the most striking feature to me is how many go the same place through the same mode of transportation. It’s a regular Saturday morning in March, but there’s a train full of people all going the same way.
Our first stop upon arrival in Nanjing was the old city wall. It’s been around for about 600 years. It was one of the largest walls ever constructed in China. Roughly 19 miles of the wall still exist today. Pretty cool to see.
After lunch, we ventured to Zongshan National Park, a huge national park located on, you guessed it, Zongshan, which translates to Purple Mountain. The national park is massive, and home to the memorial of Sun Yat-Sen, the mausoleum of the founder of the Ming dynasty, gardens, and a whole host of other things to see that we didn’t even have time to think about getting to see.
The mausoleum of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen was absolutely phenomenal. Think the Lincoln Memorial of China…with a lot more stairs and all Asian tour groups instead of just a few. Even had the multiple groups of elementary school fieldtrips. The mausoleum is perched in a spot requested by Sun Yat-Sen, on an area of land he enjoyed hunting on during his lifetime. There are 392 steps to the top, one for each character in the three wills he wrote. Looking up, the hill seems to be nothing but stairs, which represented the people’s view that there was much separating them from their leader.
But when you reach the top of the mausoleum and you look down, you only see the platforms where the stairs break, representing Sun Yat-Sen’s belief that there weren’t many things separating him from the people.
It’s an incredible memorial and view (would be infinitely better without the smog, but this is China. You can’t have it all). The memorial also has a seated statue of Sun, very Lincoln-esque.
So like I’ve mentioned before, there aren’t a whole lot of white people in China. At least not in proportion to the number of Asian people. While visiting the mausoleum, got the biggest ego boost ever when multiple- as in more than one- groups of Chinese, mostly younger, approached me and asked if they could take a picture with me. One of the boys included “because you’re just so beautiful” when he asked. Then shook my hand and said thank you after. Five of his buddies jumped in the picture too. Girls asked too. Good thing I decided to dress cute It should seem like a shock but I’m slowly becoming accustomed to it. And that’s not even counting the number of people that took our picture without our permission. I don’t even want to know how many forms of Chinese social media I’m plastered all over by now. I kind of like China. You feel all special like you’re a celebrity You don’t get asked for your picture like this in Europe. They’re used to white people.
It also struck that all of them were capable of asking in English. And how it must have taken a lot of guts to walk up to a stranger and ask to take a picture with them. The boys that asked basically followed us up the stairs and waited until another couple of girls asked first to see if I would actually do it. We wanted to ask parents if we could take pictures with their children (because Asian babies are just so darn adorable) but we couldn’t bring ourselves to ask.
After the mausoleum we continued on to another part of Zongshan National Park that had the tomb of the founder of the Ming Dynasty and a large garden. We particularly enjoyed the giant stone animal statues.
Late afternoon/early evening was spent wandering on our own in the Confucius Temple market area which runs right up to the Qinhua River. The market was jam packed with trinket and souvenir shops and all sorts of street food and vendors. Had some pretty awesome baozi and strawberries glazed with some kind of crystallized sugar. Absolutely delicious. Also tried what was supposed to be softshell crab so I ate the whole thing but probably actually wasn’t. It was fried on a stick so I figured it couldn’t be too bad. Nothing disastrous came of it. Shortly after sunset, we boarded a tiny little boat and took a nighttime cruise of the river, which was neat, but a little kitchy, reminded me a lot of a Christmas light show on the river, but with different decorations. It didn’t help that the guide on the boat was speaking in Chinese. I got that she was explaining what all the places along the river were and some of the history but she was going way too fast to pick up anything more than that.
After an incredibly long day, we finally made it to the hotel, which happened to be an art hotel. Kaitlyn and I found ourselves in a room with a rather interesting mural on the ceiling.
And being the internet addicts that we are, we found ourselves sitting in the lobby in our pajamas and slippers for about half an hour getting our communication/social media fix because the lobby was the only place in the hotel with wireless internet. We have no shame.
Day 2 found itself to be much less hectic than day 1. Praise the Lord.
After a wonderful night’s sleep, really probably the best in I don’t know how long, we got our 7:30 wake up call and started moving. Chowed down on an interesting breakfast (baozi, spinach, fried rice, broccoli, sausage, bacon, cake) and checked out. Our first of the two stops for the day was the Presidential Palace, the home to the Nationalist Government. The Nationalist government began using the Palace as headquarters and offices in 1927 and remained until they fled to Taiwan in 1949. The Presidential Palace has also been home to Ming dynasty royalty and was later the home of the Viceroy and seat of power for the Anhui, Jiansu, and Jiangxi provinces. Beautiful gardens and some very interesting history.
Lunch and the afternoon at the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall and Museum. The infamous Rape of Nanjing occurred during Japan’s occupation of China. In 1937, Japanese forces took Nanjing, the capital of China at the time, and for six weeks, pillaged, plundered, looted, raped, and killed. 300,000 innocent people were killed. The memorial stands to honor those innocent people. The memorial is built on the site of one of the mass graves and part of the exhibition hall includes the original excavation of the grave.
It’s a very sobering experience, something very much akin to visiting the Holocaust Museum and Memorial in Washington. It stands to remind all of us the horrors of war and how we must take steps to never let history repeat itself in this way.
We hopped the train back which was interesting. Instead of being in seats like our ride here yesterday, we were in sleeper cabins. During day trips, 6 people are seated in the cabin, 3 on each lower bunk like a bench, as opposed to 4 people, each to their own bunk. One of my classmates and I were lucky enough to get a cabin with 4 other Chinese. When our cabin mates arrived they started making a lot of ruckus and our teachers came running. Turns out we were sitting on the wrong side of the cabin. Our bad. You would have thought we were trying to take the whole cabin to ourselves or something. But the rest of the journey went smoothly. I followed their conversation to know that they weren’t trying to say nasty things about us.
All in all, a wonderful weekend (kind of) away. It was also nice to get a feel for travelling in China with a group before we take the plunge and venture out on our own. I’ve been to the train station, I know how to get around, makes me a feel a little more comfortable about taking trips that aren’t part of the program.
My chopsticks skills are improving (its either that or starve) but occasionally they completely fail me. I’ve determined that I will spill something on every article of clothing I brought with me over the course of this semester. I managed to find dried rice under the arm of my sweatshirt. I have absolutely no explanation for that.
Using chopsticks really makes me question China sometimes. This is the world’s oldest continuous civilization, with 5,000 years of recorded history. This is the civilization that invented paper, printing, gunpowder, and the compass. This is also the civilization that discovered diabetes, showed the first recorded use of negative numbers, made the first observation of the snowflake as a hexagonal structure, and the first record of spontaneous combustion.
They eat with two sticks.
And sometimes a spoon. Sometimes. And by sometimes I mean me when Baba starts feeling bad for me desperately chasing something with chopsticks and gives me a spoon (child sized because the ones Bobo uses are the only ones in the house I’m pretty sure) so I can actually feed myself.
The rest of the world, including many of the American students in my program, rag on China for this. See it as a funny twist. And at first it makes no sense. How a civilization and culture that gave the world so many incredible things couldn’t have evolved beyond using two sticks to eat. But then you take a closer look and it makes sense.
The juxtaposition of the crazy advancements and the seemingly arcane traditions, like chopsticks, is a phenomenal microcosm for a larger situation I’ve noticed here. China is stuck in limbo, in it’s awkward teenage years, where it’s trying to grow up and doesn’t want the rest of the developed world telling it what to do.
From what I can see, China is this strange mix of developed and developing. It’s the second largest gross GDP in the world (developed), but ranks 84th internationally for per capita GDP (developing). Multinational companies are pouring in to invest and the rest of the world puts a heavy reliance on China for manufacturing (developed), but the World Bank’s Doing Business Rankings show China as 96th for ease of doing business (12th in the East Asia and Pacific Region) and as we’ve been discussing in several of my classes, China is a saving centered culture. It’s also very difficult to get loans to start new businesses and restrictions on foreign investment prevent foreign companies from entering the market (developing). Developing countries need the initial capital that China has due to a culture that tends to save 40-50% of what it earns (!- maybe we should take a lesson from them) but if no one can get access to that capital, nothing new happens. Both capital and investment are required (Thats half the semester in Machovec’s class right there).
Outside of economics, China has other aspects where it’s developed and developing. China has a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and the world’s largest standing army (developed). But still experiences quit a bit of internal turmoil from issues such as Tibet, Xinjiang, and Taiwan (developing).
China has a lot of growing to do. It’s at a fairly young and vulnerable stage. But Leah, you just told us they have 5000 years of recorded history, how can they be young and vulnerable??
The Communist Party took control in 1949. Before 1949, China’s long 5000 year history included a massive cycle of peace, unrest, instability, revolt, and regime change, over and over and over again. All thanks to a tradition known as the Mandate of Heaven. When the Communist Party took over in 1949, it put in an end to years of fighting and started China out on a path to recovery and growth. It’s had a few bumps along the way, some leaders (well just one really) that didn’t make the best choices, but what country hasn’t had a leader that messed up? It’s now beginning to hit its stride and growing seriously into a developed nation. It doesn’t want the developed world telling it how to handle it’s business.
China’s foreign policy is not to interfere in the internal problems of other countries. They respect other nations and the soverignty of those nations by staying out of their internal disputes and request that those nations in turn respect China in the same manner. What you do not wish for yourself do not do to others (Confucius’s-he’s kind of a big deal over here- Silver Rule, its the antithesis to the Golden one). The world would be a much better place if we all took this advice to heart a little more.
As China grows and develops, it will find its own solutions to its own problems. Just as every other developed nation has before it. In the times when the US, Great Britain, France, Germany, etc. were coming along, they didn’t have the rest of the developed world (because there was no developed world it was all developing) telling them what to do or how to manage their own affairs. We’re not anywhere near that world anymore, today’s world is so far removed from that it’s difficult to even imagine. But the principle is the same. China needs to be given the chance to develop for itself, to prove itself (and in my opinion already has). I have no doubt it will succeed if the rest of the world would just take a step back and let them be.
So let’s leave China to eat with chopsticks. After all they were eating with sticks when they invented all the cool stuff. Maybe history will repeat itself and China will come out with the next awesome wave of inventions. Maybe.
The excellent thing about studying culture in the land of said culture is that it’s all around you. Your environment becomes your classroom. And my teachers take advantage of that. I had two field trips this week, both of which were very interesting and very different.
Tuesday my class on China’s Macroeconomic Impact took a trip to one of the fake markets in Shanghai, where you can supposedly find all the great designer stuff for peanuts. There are several in Shanghai. It’s not what I expected, which was an outdoor market with stalls and vendors and potentially sketchy vans of things, but more like an indoor shopping mall. Kaitlyn found a phenomenal knockoff Longchamp for about $15. They also had gorgeous pearls (that I’ll probably be going back for…need to sharpen my haggling skills first though). I’m not really sure what the fake market has to do with China’s macroeconomic impact but it was a fun excursion. The bootleg DVD store was also insane. Literally all the in-theater releases for about 15 kuai. So roughly $2.50.
After touring through the fake market, our professor led us to an area that’s known as the “foreigner area” (Literally. I can’t remember the name of it but the translation means foreigner areas) to a restaurant and bar called Shanghai Brewery. The area’s a pedestrian street across from the fake market packed with bars and restaurants. And because he was late, our professor bought the entire class a round of drinks before getting back on the bus to campus.
(We’ve made a mental bookmark of Shanghai Brewery- they have two-for-one burger deals on Tuesday and happy hour from 2-8. Now that’s my kind of place.)
Today’s field trip was completely different. My Policy, Law, and Decision Making class (the actual title is International Business Law, but the subtitle Policy, Law and Decision Making is much more appropriate to what the class actually discusses) took a field trip to the site of the first meeting of the First National Congress of the Communist Party of China. It happens to be in Shanghai.
The First National Congress was held from July 23-30, 1921 in Shanghai as well as a tourist boat on South Lake in Zhengjiang province after French Concession police busted into the meetings, breaking up the party. Pictures of the inside aren’t allowed, but it’s interesting to see where it all started, to stand in the room where Mao Zedong sat with 12 others and launched the Chinese Communist Party. That’s huge. That meeting changed the world.
The museum attached to the building gives some historical background to the Party, the May Fourth Movement in China, and the foundations of the party. Many Westerners that visit probably scoff and say its all propaganda. And while some of it may sound like propaganda, don’t we do the same thing? If someone from China visits the National Museum of American History in Washington, DC, wouldn’t they think the same about us? History is written from the perspective of the victor. Anything produced by the victor is going to sound somewhat like propaganda.
It’s also very interesting to see history from a perspective other than the West. It’s like stepping out of my own shoes into the shoes of a Chinese person (I’m sure my abroad program would be so excited to hear that, I mean isn’t cultural immersion what study abroad is all about anyways?) Not that it’s so radically different, but the tone in which information is presented seems different. Well of course it’s different, I’m in China, a country that is a functional example of communism, as opposed to America where you say the word communism and people immediately excommunicate you.
Now let me make this clear. I don’t believe in communism. Mostly because I possess what is called common sense and I don’t believe that it will work. That’s my opinion. But just because I don’t agree with it doesn’t mean I don’t understand it or its merits or why others support it. And being here is an incredible eye-opening education on communism in China. I don’t agree with it, but the way it’s been explained and from my observations, its logical and makes sense.
My Global Issues class (which is spoken entirely in Chinese and meets twice a week for two hours) had an interesting discussion today on the relationship between the government and media and censorship versus regulation. The news culture is different here. What we Americans off the bat perceive as censorship is actually not the case. For example, a few weeks ago there was a terrorist attack in a train station in Kunming (to all concerned family- Kunming is wayyyyyy far from Shanghai, over 18 hours by train, so no cause for alarm) where 10 men entered a train station and randomly started attacking people. The terrorists were part of a Xinjiang separatist group. Newspapers and media outlets reported the incident but didn’t go into much detail and according to the girl in our discussion asking the question some outlets didn’t report it at all. In the West, we would call that censorship. A terrorist attack is news! People have a right to know! In China, it’s reported, but the information is reported once, with little details, as to keep from inspiring fear in the people.
Fundamentally I don’t agree with the government exercising control over media. I like my First Amendment rights. But China’s reasoning for controlling information in cases like this makes sense. Why let media outlets run rampant and speculate (like media outlets in some countries do) when all it does is disseminate fear and unrest throughout the country.
It’s incredible to slowly peel back the layers and understand bit by bit this foreign land I’ve come to find myself in. It’s so different from everything I’ve known and everywhere I’ve been and I couldn’t be happier that I picked to come (well kind of had to, but I picked the major knowing I’d have to come) somewhere so different, where I can learn so much. I’m in literal nerd child heaven. Everyday I learn so many new things and it just makes me really happy. Really really happy.
I brought the plague down upon the house. Poor Bobo is sick and you can tell she doesn’t feel well. She’s got some rosy red cheeks and some weak and tired little eyes. Baba and Mama cough and I just shudder in guilt every time. But everyone at school seems to be sick and coming down with something too. Since the weather’s starting to turn warmer (It was 78 today!!!!! and its forecasted for about 80 tomorrow!!!!!) I think that spring is coming. And bringing some god awful sickness with it. Part of me hopes that Shanghai won’t have as much pollen as Wofford (which is probably an accurate hope since there isn’t much in the way of nature in a giant city) because I can’t handle a Wofford level spring here. I didn’t bring enough Sudafed/Benadryl for that. But warmer weather is a good thing. I can finally stop running around in massive amounts of layers all the time. Although that doesn’t stop everyone else. Literally it was 78 today and people were still wearing parkas and sweaters.
A rhythm is starting to emerge. Classes are going well, everything’s really current and interesting and a lot of it overlaps so that makes things easier. What’s comforting is daily life is somewhat like at home. Parts of my day are set in stone and repeated over and over, like what time I wake up, when I leave for school, where we grab lunch. But other things are different, the classes I have in the afternoons (because we meet once a week for 3 hours-which is seriously taking some getting used to), when I have tutoring (mandatory twice a week to help our language), cultural events going on after school and whatnot. I like having a mix of constants and changes. It keeps life from getting a little too dull.
The host family is as great as ever. Baba keeps telling me I need to talk more but I get an almost stage fright like feeling because I don’t really know what to talk about. I’ve been studying Chinese for two and a half years and I’ve begun to realize as I have conversations with people in Chinese that I don’t really know vocabulary of substance. I can tell you all about school, my family, my hobbies, and whatnot, but beyond basic small chat, I’m toast. I just don’t have much of the vocabulary for it. We talk about food a lot. And the places I visit. That much I can get across. I’m trying though, slowly but surely, it’s coming along.
Cady Heron said she like math because it’s the same in every language. I like birthdays because they’re the same in every language, country, culture, society, what have you. Customs differ and things can be different, but everywhere you go, birthdays are a celebration and for that reason alone, they’re the same everywhere.
Although I didn’t know it until I arrived home yesterday evening, yesterday was Jiejie’s birthday. She’s like 31 maybe? I’m convinced she’s about 20. She doesn’t look a day older than me. I mean without Bobo you’d never guess she’s married with a kid and all.
Tuesday and Thursday are long days for me, 3 classes. 2 hours of language in the morning from 10-12, an area studies class (Tuesdays are China’s Macroeconomic Impact, Thursdays are International Business Law) from 1-4, and then Global Issues in China (my elective class in Chinese) from 4:10-6. Dinner’s at 6:30 and its about a 20 minute walk home. Yesterday we got out of class a few minutes late so I booked it home as not to be late for our usual 6:30 dinner time.
I arrived home at 6:26, just in time. Deposited my belongings in my room, washed up and walked next door into Jiejie’s apartment for dinner. Food was already on the table but no one seemed to be sitting yet. Baba walks in and informs me today is Jiejie’s birthday! (which no one had bothered to tell me this morning. Come on people birthdays are important things. I need this information). We were going to wait until she was home to start dinner (which we usually don’t). About 10 minutes later, Brother-in-law and Bobo greet her at the elevator with a beautiful bouquet of flowers and we sit down to a celebratory dinner.
Just like at home, birthday dinners are a little more extravagant, a little more special. Tonight’s dinner included huge shrimp (with heads and tails of course, how else would you serve it?), oysters on the half shell with fabulous rice noodles, some kind of fish, large snail shells, raw salmon and another type of Japanese fish (dipped in soy sauce with wasabi-YUM), some something dipped in something that I have no idea what it was, tiny, tiny little clams (I guess) that were quite good, and either snake or eel. I’m not entirely sure which. When Baba put it on the table it still had a head, so at first I thought it was snake, but then Baba said it was a type of fish so I’m thinking it might have been eel. It was a big deal to have so much seafood because although Shanghai is close to the coast, seafood is still very expensive. Food prices in general are going up here, just like at home. In typical fashion I tried everything. The snake/eel was very tender and surprisingly good, but I just couldn’t shake the whole snake/eel thing (I had a particularly strange dream involving snakes the night before that might have contributed to that feeling) and the fact that Baba ate the head, so I just ate my first “give it a shot portion” and didn’t go back for seconds. The snails also weren’t my favorite. The oysters, the shrimp, and the raw salmon however, were spot on. Who would have thought I would go from only eating sushi that’s got some form of fried something in it to eating pure raw salmon. It was delicious. Here’s hoping I won’t die of mercury poisoning or something equally fish-related and horrible. But Jiejie and Brother-in-law were sucking it down like no tomorrow so I’m hazarding a guess that it’s safe.
Dinner was accompanied by wine and later beer. Baba opened a bottle of wine and poured small glasses for each of us. By small glass I mean tiny. Like maybe 3-5 oz max. But the idea isn’t to sip wine with dinner, it’s to periodically toast for whatever occasion you’re celebrating (which is why alcohol isn’t typically drunk with meals, unless it’s a special occasion). So we would every so often at dinner toast to Jiejie’s birthday.
We finished a bottle of wine and Brother –in-Law and I each started a beer. Their beers come in size 40s. But the beer was also poured into the tiny wine glasses and used to toast, so it was quite a bit like taking shots of beer. There was also that awkward moment when Brother-in-Law asked how many bottles of wine I could drink. I just didn’t answer. I think he and Baba said something to the effect that Chinese drink more than Americans. But I was thinking to myself if this is the way you drink, with tiny little glasses, toasting all the time, there’s no way. At least that’s what the alcoholic college student in me was saying.
What birthday would be complete without cake? We all had a lovely slice of cake, which was topped with a cream along the lines of cool whip and lots of fruit. The cake was also layered with fruit, which was quite refreshing. A little different, definitely not as sweet as I’m used to, but good, and definitely enjoyable. We sang “Happy birthday” in Chinese, which is the exact same as the American version, only you sing the Chinese phrase for Happy Birthday instead. There were candles and everything.
All in all a lovely family evening. I’m happy I get to spend time with my host family like this, it’s quite wonderful. And I have an idea of what my birthday will entail, which is coming up kind of (not really) soon. Little over a month. Bobo and I have the same birthday (or birthdays really close together, I wasn’t quite sure which when Baba told me) so we’ll be getting a double celebration. Funny too cause my birthday is on Easter again this year.
1. You think the American obsession with technology is bad? Come to China. It’s 1000 times worse in Asia. And smartphones other than iPhones (also extremely popular) are roughly the size of tablets. I have no understanding or explanation for why that is. Our first chapter in Chinese class discussed Internet usage as well. Chinese people are obsessed with an app called WeChat. We have it in the US but it’s basically iMessage with a couple of Facebook/Twitter like features. Also has a few features that are pretty cool though, like sending short spoken messages to friends that they listen to instead of texting it to them to read.
2. Dogs: either stray with rabies or the most spoiled pets ever, dressed to the nines with fancy collars and owners holding umbrellas over their heads. There is no in between. And dogs are either tiny or huge. Also no in-between.
3. In America when you go somewhere and want to get something from the gift shop its a shot glass. In China its a fan.
4. Mama is just like the mom in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” “You hungry?” “No not really.” “Ok I make you something.” And shoves food in my hands. I may sound like I’m complaining but I’m not. So much for losing weight in China (although my jeans feel a little loose-but lets be real thats from not being machine dried)
5. You think the wealth gap in America is big? Nothing compared to China. But it’s something you have to put into context given that China has lifted half a million people out of poverty in the last three decades. But there are slums that back up to nice, expensive apartment complexes. Real estate is off the charts. (decent) One bedroom apartment starts at 4.5 million RMB (that’s about $750,000, for one bedroom).
6. Fashion: You see a little bit of everything. It’s ok in my neighborhood to walk around in pajamas and slippers. At the Bund and in Pudong, not so much, it’s a little dressier. Tights with shorts are very popular for girls. I’ve seen some absolutely fabulous coats. Chinese are also experts at layering (which makes sense because everyone wears 8 layers all the time because its so cold). Crocs are popular, they have their own store and everything, not just one of those little stands in the mall. A surprising majority of the men drew very well, tailored pants and suits, skinny jeans, blazers, aforementioned layering, neck scarves due to the aforementioned cold. I don’t hate it. Also, the American fashion (not really fashion in my opinion) of sticking arbitrary Chinese characters on pieces of clothing? They do that here with American words and phrases.
There are videocameras everywhere. I’ll let that one speak for itself.
7. I feel very safe here. I have no problems walking home by myself, even if it’s after dark (although to and from school is the only place I’ll go by myself after dark). Westerners are generally given a pretty wide berth as opposed to other countries, especially Europe where anyone who looks American/touristy is targeted. But we’re not really targeted more than anyone else. But it feels safer than any other major international city I’ve been to. Petty crime is common, but violent crime rates are extremely low
8. Chinese people like soccer. And even Asian teams have their token Africa/British/European player that was clearly paid entirely too much money to go play for a team in Asia. I don’t really enjoy soccer to being with, I don’t really understand it (I’m of the personal opinion if you cut the field in half it would be much more interesting), and here I can’t really understand the announcers but I know every time something good or almost good happens because the announcers yell 漂亮！(piao liang!) which means beautiful or pretty. So we comment on sports the same way.
9. Babies are cute in general, but Chinese babies are just especially cute. They’re just so adorable. Sometimes in America you get kids that just aren’t as cute as the others (and you feel kind of bad for them-don’t kid yourself you know you do). That’s no the case in China. I have yet to see a small child that isn’t adorable. The “adopt an Asian” phenomenon just became so much clearer (I mean besides wanting to do good in the world and help a child escape poverty and all).
10. It is perfectly acceptable at the dinner table to spit something back out if it’s too hot, chew loudly with your mouth open, slurp your soup, and put chunks of fish in your mouth and spit out the skin and bones you don’t want to swollen back onto the table. Same goes for shrimp shells and the like.
12. Last night Baba gave me something that was supposed to be candy I think. It tasted like the toothpaste they use to clean your teeth at the dentist a little bit, but without the mint flavor.
13. Ice cream is also a big thing here. Haggen Das and Coldstone are very popular (Coldstone tastes just like home). It’s more of a luxury treat though. The ice cream stores are nice with plush seating and it’s a real affair when you get some. Topping selection is more limited, which shouldn’t have surprised me. We are America, we enjoy sugar.
14. Fried rice tastes better over here.
15. I’ve never seen so much cooking oil in my life. And I’m from the South.
16. Tesco is just like Walmart in the sense that there are 20 check out lanes but only about 4 are ever open at a given time.
17. It’s handy to keep 4-5 1-kuai coins in your pocket when you’re checking out pretty much everywhere because vendors are big on giving back even change. For example, lunch was 31 kuai (oh big spender today, all of $5) and I handed the cashier a 50 kuai note. She promptly asked for 1 kuai so she could give me an even 20 note back. You see that occasionally in the US, especially with really small change but here its an everyday practice.
18. Chinese people really enjoy using emojis. A lot. As in 100% of the WeChat messages I’ve gotten from my tutor include emojis.
Guess who forgot her poncho and umbrella and made the 25 minute trek home in the pouring rain. This kid. Right here. That’s gonna do wonders for my cold recuperation.
But despite being caught in the monsoon, it wasn’t a bad walk. Today was a good day and I didn’t want to let a little something like rain ruin it (managed an A- on the oral test and a B+ on the written test for my first Chinese exam so WOHOOOOOO and had a super fun trip to the mall with Kaitlyn). Since I’m so urban now, I tend to plug in my headphones and jam a little bit when I’m walking by myself (note that this does increase chances of being hit by scooters from behind because I can’t hear their horns. Yes, because scooters disregard the road and often prefer to drive on the sidewalks). Which is exactly what I did today, plugged into some music and let myself have a little dance party on the way home. No, I wasn’t actually singing but I was mouthing the words, and no, I wasn’t actually dancing, but I put a little strut in my step to the beat. A little Whitney, a little Temptations (had to really resist the urge to dance on that one, seeing as it was Ain’t Too Proud to Beg, but I did swap the original lyrics for the KD version. Instant Wofford heartache right there though), a little Bob Seger. Made the rain seem like nothing.
And I figure if everyone in this country is going to stare at me for being Western (and today for not having an umbrella because literally everyone has umbrellas), I might as well give them something to stare at. I get to enjoy my walk home and they get to tell their friends about the crazy American they saw on the way home tonight. Although I’m not even sure too many noticed with all the rain and aforementioned umbrellas blocking all view.
I arrive home and Mama immediately sends me off to the shower to get warm and then dry. Dinner the normal quiet affair, although I learned a new way to eat shrimp if it still has the head on it. Peel the shell and then bite with the head and tail facing away from you. Easy peasy the head and tail come right off and you’re chowing down on delicious shrimp. But now, I face a mountain of homework. Fortunately no classes on Friday means tomorrow is the weekend. Yes please.
(this post is a little long, but worth the read, I promise!)
All credit for the best day ever goes to my grandmother, Nana, many many thanks for getting me in touch with Mrs. Elaine’s nephew, he and his wife were my wonderful and gracious hosts yesterday.
What I thought was going to be a nice Sunday lunch and afternoon wound up turning into one of the best and most interesting experiences I will have in Shanghai.
Estill (pop. 2000) is a very, very small town in Hampton County, South Carolina. If you’re from Estill or know people from Estill, you’re set for life because Estill, as we fondly refer to it, is the center of the universe. Case and point: the connection between me and my hosts for the day, Mr. and Mrs. John Ling, can be traced to that tiny little town. Mr. John Ling works in Shanghai for the South Carolina Department of Commerce. His aunt happens to be my grandmother’s very dear friend from high school. Where did they go to high school you might ask? Yes. Estill.
Estill wins. Every. Time.
I had been feeling pretty cruddy the past couple of days (spent most of Friday and all of Saturday in bed) but yesterday was a major pick-me-up. I met the Lings and their daughter Lauren in Pudong for lunch at the Golden Bull, one of their favorite Vietnamese places. Greenville, despite the thriving international metropolitan community (read that with just the barest hint of sarcasm) lacks a decent Vietnamese place. This Vietnamese place, however, was incredible. And as you all know by now, food is my kryptonite. I was in heaven twenty minutes into our meeting when the first dish arrived at the table.
After lunch, John and Sophie showed me around a couple parts of town I hadn’t ventured to yet, XianTinDi, popular with cafes, coffee shops and bars, and TianZiFang, and older area of town slammed full of shops, tiny bars, knick knacks, bikes, and street food vendors. What John was telling me makes TianZiFang all the more interesting. Unlike many renovation and regentrification projects (not only in Shanghai, but all over the world), the residents who live in the apartments above the crowded streets in this part of town were not pushed out. It made the transition into what the TianZiFang is now much easier and without a feeling of resentment.
It’s hands down the coolest part of Shanghai I’ve been to. Yes the Bund and Pudong are interesting, and rich with history and promise respectively, but the TianZiFang is quintessential China, narrow rickety streets with laundry strung up on lines overhead. Street vendors with stalls and all kinds of foods, endless shops and tiny restaurants and bars. Color everywhere, always something to look at. I can’t wait to go back and explore at night when it’s lit up, like Sophie suggested to me as we strolled through.
We enjoyed dessert and afternoon tea at a small, cramped (not unusual for Shanghai) two-story cafe before venturing to meet John’s client, who we, little to my knowledge, would be wining and dining that evening.
Up until this point, today had already been wonderful. Having a great meal, making new friends, and essential a personal guide through the coolest part of town. But here’s where it really gets good.
We get into the car to pick up John’s client. At this point I thought they were about to drop me at the metro so I could start working my way home to do homework and rest when John turns around and informs me his client has arrived and he invites me to join them for dinner.
Liu Xiansheng, who for the sake of simplicity we’re going to rename Mr. Dude, is a Cantonese businessman who owns a rubber and plastics manufacturing and sales company. He has houses in Canton (Guangdong Province), Hong Kong and Greer, SC (from my understanding). Also has business offices in all three of those places as well. South Carolina man, I’m telling you, is where its at.
So how was dinner you may ask? Traditional Cantonese affair. The restaurant we dined at is the super-fancy, everyone has a private room, own chef and personal service type place. Our dining room offered views of the Shanghai Stock Exchange. Casual. Also made me really, really glad I decided to wear a dress and tights when I got ready Sunday morning.
Dish after dish after dish loaded onto a lazy susan. What did I have to eat? Oh I thought you’d never ask. And even if you didn’t, you should know by now I’ll be giving a vivid description. With pictures (see other post with pictures). Sophie generously encouraged me to take as many as I wanted. I like her. A lot.
A fried shrimp. Larger than my head. Thought it was a lobster at first
A fish head. With the eyeball and everything still there. No I did not eat the eye.
Fried duck skin dipped in sugar (and I thought we were bad about our fried foods back home)
Traditional roast duck
Rice congee, broth (but thick) with rice made from the leftover bits of the roast duck
Birds Nest soup, served in a papaya bowl. Aka sparrow spit. SPARROW SPIT. I thought they were kidding but Mr. Dude kept saying “口水” (kou shui) which literally means “mouth water” so finally I looked at Sophie and she was like yeah, its spit.
It was all delicious. I can now no longer be described as a picky eater. Hear that Dad?? I mean obviously I wanted to try everything cause this is one of those chances you get, but its also that moment when the head of an international business orders fish head and sparrow spit and tells you to eat it. You eat it. All of it. And tell him how much you like it. It’s an international incident waiting to happen if you don’t.
Even better than the food was the company. John and Sophie are already lovely, and Mr. Dude wasn’t short of entertainment. He doesn’t speak English, preferring a mix of Cantonese and Mandarin. I listened mostly, but occasionally joined in when I could understand, and Sophie translated most of the rest for me. Mr. Dude did most of the talking, and boy did he talk. Everything from doing business to his family (married twice, 4 children, complained a lot about his oldest son who currently attends high school in Spartanburg).
Somehow through the course of conversation I think he offered to let me use his house in Hong Kong when I plan to visit later this semester. Also told me he would lend me use of his personal chef (!!!) for a lesson or two in traditional Cantonese cuisine (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!). He hates American food and apparently plans on bringing his chef to the US and opening a private dinner club. He told me after a semester here I wouldn’t be able to eat American food again. I thought about it and I’m not sure I’ll be able to either. Ok that’s totally a lie. I will forever stuff myself of whatever my mother makes. I told him next time he came to the US he would have to come have dinner at my house and we would cook real American food for him (I kind of volunteered you Mom).
All in all, an incredible day and an even more incredible example of the amazing hospitality in this culture. It’s like southern hospitality on steroids, and I didn’t think that was possible. The Lings, who have a connection to me through a random family member, and the fact we’re both from South Carolina and happen to be in the same city of 23 million people, gave up an afternoon to show me around and feed me. Endlessly feed me.
AND DUMMY ME COMPLETELY FORGOT TO TAKE THEM A GIFT. LITERALLY WANT TO SHOOT MYSELF. Had to settle for an extremely overdone email instead. Next time.
Even better, someone I barely met, who had a connection to me through business offered to let me use his house and personal chef. Like what? Connections here are everything. When you have them, they mean something. Just like back home. It’s incredible to me I got to experience it firsthand. Not that I haven’t already, staying with a host family and all, but this is a little different. It’s making my experience in Shanghai that much better and memorable. This is something I’ll definitely never forget.
I wrote most of this riding the metro home, taking down as much as possible before the food coma and resurging illness got the best of me. I hadn’t finished my homework, not nearly ready for the character quiz I had today in class (which actually went ok), and feeling like my lungs want to force their way out of my body by way of my esophagus (which has gotten marginally better today), I didn’t even care. Yesterday was so worth it.