17 December 2008


I'm sitting here in the Shanghai Pudong airport about to board my flight for the U.S.

I just got a nice little preview of America as I went to buy a bottle of water. An obnoxious, overweight, silicone-enhanced woman with a Texas accent apparently wasn't getting her fried potato fix quickly enough. As I waited in line at the Burger King, she had a meltdown because the fries weren't coming quick enough. She shouted angrily at the kids behind the counter: "Naw uh, if them fries are all gone, I'm a be pissed. Uh uh, I been waiting for too long now, I'm tellin ya. NAW, you ain't gonna give them fresh ones to him, are you??? I's here first! Now shit, that ain't right. I been waitin'!!!!" All of this was obviously in English (or a dialect thereof). The completely bewildered Chinese employee did his best to placate the rude American, "please wait moment, more come soon, sorry, sorry." I cringed as she went on, "NAW UHHH, come on y'all, now's about time, I BEEN WAITIN'!!!!" So, America's presence in the Shanghai Pudong airport is an impatient Texan heard accross the terminal screaming at a fast food outlet...

That said, I am definitely looking forward to spending some time back in the States. I wish that I knew exactly when I were coming back, and I wish it were going to be for 2 weeks instead of 4, but that's outta my hands. Second to seeing friends and family, I'm mostly looking forward to the food. A nice steak, fresh salad, good bread, cheese, YES.

What I'm not looking forward to is the next 15 hours in coach in a crowded 747. I considered going for one of the business class upgrades that sell on eBay for $300, but decided against it at the last minute.

OK, last call for boarding....

16 December 2008

Merry Christmas

You know it's Christmas in Shanghai when.....

You walk into a convenience store and are greeted by an aggressive techno remix of "O Little Town of Bethlehem" blasting at maximum volume. I could barely hear the clerk tell me how much I owed. No joke. Isn't there a law somewhere against making techno remixes of biblical hymns???

12 December 2008

Small Victory

After nearly 2 months of showers that were always warm but never quite hot despite the tap being all the way on hot, I just pushed a random button on the compact water heater in the kitchen and now the water is scalding hot!!! YES!

Anyway, it has been somewhat of a slow week here. Not too busy with work, thanks to the global economic crisis! It is a really interesting place to be, seeing the effect of the crisis first hand. Every day there are reports in the paper here about how bad the economy is. China's leaders met in Beijing a few days ago to work out a stimulus plan to pump some life into the sluggish economy. Just yesterday the headline in the Shanghai Daily was "China's Exports Record First Decline in 7 Years." This week China Eastern Airlines got a cash injection from the government of about $500 million. Sounds like a bargain compared to what the U.S. auto industry (and inevitably the airlines are next...) is asking for! There are frequent reports of factories in Guangdong province, the center of China's export-focused manufacturing industry, closing down. GDP growth in Q3 2008 slowed to 9%, down from highs of 12% during the same period last year. Foreign investment in China fell 36.5% last month from the same period a year earlier.

Behind all of the numbers, the ramifications are huge. For the first time in recent history, the Eastern coastal cities are now seeing reverse migration, as factories close and migrant workers return to their rural hometowns. Crime seems to be a real concern; especially as the Chinese New Year holiday approaches and people look to return home. Apparently crime in the cities always rises at this time, as people steal to finance journeys home, but this year people are saying it's worse because the economic situation and factory layoffs have made people even more desperate. I have been warned by several people to be especially careful.

On a lighter note, my friend Christian from Bates arrived on Tuesday, so we've been hanging out and he's in the process of trying to land a job and an apartment....not as easy as it sounds but he should get set up in a week or so.

Last night we went out to dinner with one of my Chinese friends. He took us to an awesome barbecue restaurant. It took about one and a half hours on various buses for us to get there, proving how big this city is, but it was well worth it. I said barbecue, but don't think Texas. It's not anything like pulled pork and ribs, but rather food grilled on a stick over charcoal. Every bit as delicious. We had lamb, beef, chicken wings, cauliflower, garlic shoots, sliced potatoes, meatballs, and it was all awesome. Washed down with cold beer, it was a delicious meal. It was just the skewers of crunchy chicken and pork cartilage/joints that I couldn't quite get excited about.

It's hard to believe that I'm headed back to the U.S. so soon, and that I've already been here for 2 months. I'm just beginning to get settled and feel at home, and now leaving! Although I'm definitely looking forward to some of the conveniences of American life....and the food!

Lastly, I saw this creatively named description of the bathroom the other day:

09 December 2008

Sunday night I went to dinner at a Chinese friend's house. Actually a friend of a friend. Rebecca met a guy named Fubin in Changsha, and when he moved to Shanghai he called me and invited me for dinner. He's 22 and lives with 5 other people his age, and they all work at the same IT company here in Shanghai. Anyway, they/the apartment reminded me of the movie L'Auberge Espagnole. 6 of them living in a crowded apartment, always joking and making fun of each other, smoking a lot. They made a delicious dinner, although it was conspiculously absent of meat (aside from a half stick of the processed Spam-like product that is available here), and explained that they can't really afford meat. They each had about a million questions for me, wanting to know about every possible aspect of life in America. They were laughing a lot and Fubin, the only English speaker, explained that they were all just really "excited, nervous, and happy" because it was the first time they had spoken to a foreigner. I even got one guy to demonstrate his gong fu for me.

05 December 2008


Last night I went out with my friend Joshua who has been living here for 11 years. We went to a few different places and finally to the Cotton Club, a long-running jazz club here that is pretty well known. It's a dark and smoky place with a good band and a laid back atmosphere. You enter and immediately feel like you've stepped into the past, to some kind of golden age before everyone came to Shanghai, before the nightlife scene was dominated by mega clubs blasting techno, back to some civilized Colonial era where people still remembered when there were signs in the public parks that read "No Dogs or Chinese Allowed." Putting aside the obvious negative ramifications of Colonialism, there's something romantic about the place that recalls Shanghai in the 1920s and 1930s when it was known as the Paris of the East. Not that I'm advocating a return to those times or justifying the injustices of the concession era.

We were with a bunch of Joshua's friends, including a German named Werner (pronounced Verner) and his young Chinese girlfriend who spoke perfect English and definitely had some stories. These were all people who have been here a long time and live here permanently, expatriates in the true sense of the word, not just kids who come for a year or two.

When we got to the place it was full. Apparently the people I was with have some pull, because as soon as we entered a waiter appeared with a table, threw on a fresh table cloth, and placed it right in front of the stage. Certainly it was not my presence that elicited such hospitality. It reminded me of the scene in Goodfellas, with the awesome tracking shot when they enter the old Copacabana through the kitchen, and the staff makes room and places a table front and center for them. Shots and beers appeared and I didn't pay for a drink all night. Werner's girlfriend told me stories about strange things in Shanghai, including the lesbian waitress and the Chinese singer. More shots and beer appeared. An American who sounded kind of like Nina Simone was performing old jazz songs, and she was followed by a Chinese girl with a strong voice who did a pretty convincing rendition of Jeff Buckley's Hallelujah. It was an interesting night and a slice of Shanghai that I hadn't seen before.

30 November 2008

Mei Banfa

Yesterday I had an experience that epitomized the difficulties of dealing with bureaucracy in China and also was a good example of a "mei banfa" situation.

Friday night I left my cell phone in a cab. Long story, not worth retelling, but I was unable to get it back even though I had the taxi receipt and called the company right away. So yesterday I go to buy a new phone at the China Mobile store right near my apartment. I brought my SIM card registration packet, which was all I thought I needed. I got to the counter, after 20 minutes in line, and explained my situation to the agent. He said that my phone was registered in another person's name, so he could not do anything on the account because it wasn't in my name. He said it was a stolen number. I realized that this was because I bought the phone at an electronics mall, and not the China Mobile store, and I didn't have my passport when I bought the phone so they just registered it to a random name. My Chinese was not good enough to understand, but I'm sure they explained this to me at the time.

Anyway, the guy tells me that I need to produce a list of ten numbers that I've called within the past month. Sounds pretty simple, right? I think for a minute, and then tell him that I don't know anyone's number by heart, that they're all in the phone that I lost, isn't there any other way I can prove my identity? Isn't the fact that I have the SIM card packet enough? "Mei banfa, mei you banfa," he says. Ahhh, this terrible expression. It basically means "impossible," but it is used in a wide variety of contexts including "no way around this problem," "there's nothing I can do," "I don't want to help you," and "that's life." It is the ultimate indication that you have hit a brick wall in China. I argue with the guy for a little while longer, but he just repeats himself: "mei banfa." I soon realize at this point that I need to somehow scrounge together a list of ten phone numbers. I did not expect buying a new phone would be this difficult.

I leave in defeat and return a few hours later with a list of 15 or so numbers that I'm able to find on scraps of paper and in my computer's address book. I also bring my passport, my Registration Form of Residence (all foreigners have to register with the police), my receipt from where I bought the original phone and SIM card, and my SIM password card. I think I'll surely have no problem now. It's later in the day and the line is longer now. Finally I get back up to the counter. The guy types in the first ten numbers. Half of them go through and the other half come back as not in the system. He tells me that it must not be my account because half of the numbers are wrong. "This must be a stolen number," he says. I assure him that I have called each of these numbers in the past month, and that the phone number is mine. "Mei banfa," he says. I am about ready to punch this guy. His attitude is so bureaucratic and he clearly isn't interested in helping the dumb foreigner. I am reminded that China Mobile is a state-owned enterprise of the People's Republic of China.

This has already taken about two hours of my time today and all I want to do is get a new phone and register my number. I am getting frustrated now and I tell him that it's not my problem, I know I called these numbers, please try again. "Mei banfa," he says again. Then he thinks for a minute, and asks me when I called these numbers. About half of them I'd called the day before. He tells me that sometimes it takes a while for them to come up in the system, so I should come back in a week and then it will probably work. I tell him that I can't be without a phone for a week, that's ridiculous. "Mei banfa," he says again. I think we're up to at least 5 now. I'm really getting pissed now and I tell him he needs to do something, please help me out, I'm not lying, this is not a stolen number. I am begging him. He looks at me for a while, and then gets up and returns with a form. He painstakingly fills out some sort of affadavit, writing my story in extensive detail and giving him the authority to override the system and register my number in my name. He gives me a bunch of papers to sign. I hand over my passport. Approximately 11 signatures later, my phone number is oficially registered in my name and I'm the owner of a new cell phone and SIM card with my original number.

And that's the thing about "mei banfa" in China. There is, in fact, almost always a way to deal with the problem. Nothing is ever really impossible. Sometimes it just takes a while.

27 November 2008

Well, I've done it. Even though I have a lot of reservations about the whole idea of blogging, I've decided to create a blog to communicate with people back home and make sure that I document this crazy experience. On the whole, I think there are probably far too many blogs (read: people who think what they have to say is important) out there, but hopefully I can make this work and possibly even contribute some original thoughts or unique viewpoints. We shall see...

26 November 2008

Notes on Transportation

Tonight I was reminded how big this city is, how many people there are, how urgently they all want to move around, and how the transportation system, massive and comprehensive as it is, is stretched to the breaking point. The journey also extracted all notions of personal space that I previously held to. Crowded subways aren't a new thing, but such sustained and immediate physical proximity to strangers turns out to be pretty exhausting.

My destination was an apartment less than ten miles from mine. I started out by walking from my apartment to the nearest subway stop at Hengshan road. This takes 20 minutes which doesn’t seem too long, but when you have to walk this almost every day you quickly begin to wish they’d build a closer station. I swipe my metro card and walk through the turnstiles. I walk down the stairs to the platform and luckily a train is just pulling in. The platform is crowded with people patiently standing on the markings that show you where the train will stop and exactly where the doors will be. This is a smart design element in theory, except that in practice it leads to everyone standing right in the middle and charging on to the train the minute the doors open, exiting passengers be damned. Anyway, the doors open but the train is completely packed. People are packed in shoulder to shoulder and no one is getting off and there is no way that I’m getting on that train. Some on the platform try to push their way on, but there is physically no room. The platform attendant starts angrily blowing his piercing whistle and yelling at everyone to wait for the next train. So we wait. The next one is crowded too, but I am able to push my way on. No way is there enough room to read the Shanghai Daily that I just bought.

Humanity is now thoroughly all up in my grill (disclosure: not my original phrase). Young professionals listening to their iPods and furiously texting, students in their matching track suits munching on convenience store snacks, migrant workers carrying all of their possessions in huge woven plastic bags, women with their groceries, and assorted other characters are packed onto this train. The guy right next to me shakes his head and (I think intentionally) releases a cloud of dandruff. I brush off my shoulders and try not to vomit. I can tell he’s a migrant worker by his dirty hands, dark skin, evident lack of a recent shower, and filthy clothes. One thing I still don’t understand is why so many people wear suits in China. This guy is the lowest rung on China’s labor force, but he’s wearing a really dirty gray pinstripe suit and black leather dress shoes. Wouldn’t a pair of jeans make more sense? Oh well.

After about 20 minutes we arrive at Shanghai indoor stadium. Here I get off and it’s a long walk through crowded underground tunnels to transfer to Line 3. It is here that I witness another of those seems-like-a-good-idea-but-in-practice-leads-to-chaos things. When you are approaching the platform area through the tunnel, the PA system suddenly blares that the train has arrived. Convenient right? Well sure, but what’s the point of telling this to people who are still a couple hundred meters away from the platform? Most people break into a full blown run, elbows and laptop bags flying everywhere. They’re clearly not going to make this train, but they nonetheless charge like their lives depend on it, jamming the escalator and just creating more traffic.

Finally I get on the Line 3 metro. I take this to Yishan Road, where I think I can transfer to Line 9, which should take me to my destination. I get off at Yishan Road and follow the signs for Line 9. After several long minutes of walking, I am met by the horrible sight of several hundred people waiting in a snaking line to board a bus. What? I thought I was taking the subway? I get in line and ask the guy next to me what this is. “It is waiting for the bus,” he says. Ohhhh, thanks guy. I inquire some more and find out that Line 9 is so new that it does not yet connect to the rest of the subway system, so they have buses that shuttle passengers between the two stations. Everyone is pretty annoyed at this point, and the line for the buses is hostile. As soon as a bus approaches the line swells and everyone pushes forward. The people at the front are screaming because they’re being pushed into the path of the bus. The buses arrive and people pack into every conceivable pocket of open space. Finally, I make it onto the third bus. The bus creaks its way through the crowded surface streets, honking furiously, swerving through a construction site, arriving at the new Line 9 station. Walk walk walk, swipe metro card again, board train. This time the train isn’t ridiculously crowded. I’m able to snag a seat and actually read my paper.

By the time I finally reach my destination, an hour and a half has passed. This isn’t actually my destination, but it’s the closest metro stop to my destination. So from here I have to take a taxi. I emerge from the station and get into a taxi but he turns off his light and tells me he’s going to eat dinner. I wait for another one and finally spot one up ahead. I run for it and reach it at exactly the same time as a confused looking teenage girl. I know I should be nice and offer her the cab, maybe even open the door for her, but my manners and patience have been eroded by the journey. Sorry, but I am not waiting anymore. I give her a look of “it’s dog eat dog out there, baby” and get in the cab. Mom, I know you taught me about all that chivalry stuff, but sometimes you just have to look out for number one.

After a cab ride filled with sitting in traffic, precariously darting through narrow open spaces, slamming on the brakes, confusion about my destination, etc., we finally arrive at the right apartment compound. The guard gives a crisp salute and opens the gate. I find the right building, and thankfully I am greeted by dinner on the table. It turns out to be a feast of beef and lamb hotpot, accompanied by two bottles of 1994 Great Wall cabernet. Not bad. Total travel time: 2 hours.

23 November 2008

This Week in Korea

This past week I went to Korea for business and it wasn’t at all like I expected. It is completely different from China. I guess I had the notion that it would be kind of similar, because it’s not that far away, the people are of similar ancestry, they use chopsticks…….I don’t know. This is obviously completely ridiculous in hindsight; it’s a totally different country.

The first thing I noticed when landing in Busan was the air. Wow. It was clean. The sky was bright blue, not a cloud to be seen, the sun was beating down, and it was about 45-50 degrees. Like Maine in the fall. The blue sky and fresh air was really a shock, because you don’t get this in Shanghai. Ever. The sky is almost always just varying shades of white and grey. It becomes normal for the visibility to be a few blocks because the air is so thick with smog/pollution, or "fog" as many euphemistically refer to it.

The next thing I noticed is that things work. There is efficiency. Things are well designed and well engineered. There is a way that things are done and people behave accordingly and things work. This is very different from China, and it was a welcome discovery. Maybe this is like going from France or Italy to Germany? One example is driving. The roads in Korea are modern and not permanently under construction like in China. The highways reminded me of U.S. Interstates, except here they have cameras every few kilometers that automatically photograph your license plate and send you a ticket in the mail if you speed. I hope they never implement this in America. In the cities, drivers follow traffic laws and rarely need to use their horns. Even in jammed Seoul, there is a definite lack of that sense of chaos and desperate urgency that characterizes Shanghai traffic.

Another scene that reveals the cultural differences is restaurants. In China, you barge into a restaurant, push your way through the crowds and staff, and try to find an empty table. There is rarely a hostess or someone waiting to seat you. When you want more of something, you shout across the room: “xiaojie, xiaojie, fuwuyuan PIJIU” (miss, miss, server, BEER). A minute later she throws down some more beer on your table and everything is alright. Same thing when you want the check, you just yell for it, and she stands over you impatiently while you count out the bills.

In Korea it’s completely different. There are rules and decorum at every stage. When you enter a restaurant you are warmly greeted with bows and smiles. You are kindly instructed to take off your shoes. The restaurant is spotlessly clean, so it’s OK. You are escorted to a table. When you need something, you press a little button on the corner of the table that rings somewhere. A second later a smiling waitress appears, bowing and asking what she can get you. When you pay the bill, you do it up front at a cashier stand. When you leave the restaurant, the staff bows and thanks you. At every stage of every interaction there are bows, pleases, and thank yous. The language also seems to have an unending supply of words of confirmation. Whenever two people are interacting it seems like they are always bantering back and forth, offering words of confirmation that the other is doing the right thing, bowing, saying thank you, OK, yes. This decorum, so rigid in comparison to China, was the thing that really struck me the most about Korea.

13 November 2008

At the table

Something funny happened at lunch yesterday. I was in Cixi for business and when that's the case, lunch is a huge 2+ hour meal without least 15 dishes and usually costs about as much as my monthly rent. Anyway, they ordered a big platter of sashimi, which I was really excited about. This was a treat because sushi is very expensive here and not very common and I haven’t had any until now.

Anyway about halfway through the meal, everyone is just eating casually, picking at the plethora of other dishes and not paying attention to the sushi. The sushi was on a bed of shaved ice, and the shrimp were just stuck head first (head on, raw) into the ice. Well, all of a sudden, one of the shrimp came back to life and started wildly flapping around the table. It bounced off of the sushi platter and all around the table. Then one more did the same thing. This continued until there were five big shrimp hopping around the table furiously. They would coil up, then whip themselves straight, and really vigorously try to get away. These were pretty big shrimp and they were just flopping around the table like maniacs. I’d never seen live shrimp like that.

I guess they had just been stuck into the ice but they weren’t dead, and as it melted they were able to break free and try to escape! So now everyone at the table is madly trying to catch the shrimp with their chopsticks. I am laughing too hard to focus on catching the shrimp. Finally one guy catches one. He squeezes it with his chopsticks tightly to make sure it can't escape, but it's still squirming. He pops it in his mouth and spits out the head and shell with expert dexterity. I am dying laughing, I can't believe this, and the whole restaurant is looking at me because I’m laughing so hard. Am I the only one who things this is ridiculously funny? Apparently. My dining companions just grab the live shrimp and promptly decapitate, peel, and eat. YUM.

The other highlight of lunch was that I ate turtle for the first time. Honestly the meat was really good, but getting to it required an intimate acquaintance with the slimy skin, shell, organs, fat, and bones. Speaking of intimacy, apparently it’s an aphrodisiac and good for your stamina; my hosts told me that if I ate turtle I’d be able to go for 2 hours tonight. We’ll see about that...

11 November 2008

On the bus

I had a bizarre experience on the bus tonight on my way home from the airport. This kid gets on and stands looking at me for about a minute. I move my bags and say he can sit down. He sits and then stares at me for another good minute, before asking me where I’m from and making small talk. He’s with a group of about 5 other kids my age, he’s 23, he’s wearing a suit, and seems pretty nice. He asks me what I do, gives me his card, says the Chinese for “trainer,” shows me some poster of an American guy preaching/lecturing to a huge stadium where everyone has their heads bowed and their arms up in the air. He says he works for a company that is into motivational speaking or corporate training. I don't really understand.

What I’m really thinking is that he’s a missionary or religious cult member. His fancy name card says “oneness of tao,” and he acts like a missionary really wanting to talk to me and asking me every imaginable question. He asks for my card and I give it to him. He passes it around to his friends and now they all want one. He asks me my phone number and I say I don’t have a Chinese one, sorry. Then I forget and a minute later take out my phone and start sending a text message. Oops. I tell him it’s just for work and not for personal, sorry.

He speaks zero English and my limited Chinese is a little bit of an obstacle, but he presses on. He’s from Shenzhen. He says I am his first foreign friend and he is so happy. He will send me an email and hopes that I have a phone number soon. He asks if when he comes to America he can meet my family and stay with me. I say, yeah, maybe, but he wants a promise. I’m not giving it. He’s moving way too fast. I try several times to put my headphones on but he won't let me. Anyway we talk and talk for the 30 minute bus ride and then FINALLY arrive at People’s Square where the bus ends and I'll get on the subway. I say, OK, I’m getting on the subway from here, bye bye. And he goes, yes, we are taking the subway too! WTF. This is getting a little bit weird. He keeps smiling at me and looking at me really intently. Well of course it turns out that they’re not actually taking the subway, but he just want to stay with me and talk more, so they walk me to the subway. Finally I’m leaving and I go to shake is hand, and he says in Chinese, hug, hug. And he hugs me very firmly. Wow, this is getting really weird. Zaijian, wacko.

I have a lot of questions about this kid... I really can’t tell if he was just an overeager Chinese guy who was really excited to meet a foreigner, if he was a missionary or member of some strange cult trying to convert me, if he was trying to sell me something, or what. I’m still laughing about it as I write this. Welcome back to Shanghai!

21 October 2008

First days in Shanghai

Wednesday night when I got here I checked into my hotel and then Thomas (agent here) invited me out to dinner. The American lawyer who was also here working on a case with Thomas joined us, as well as Thomas's wife. So we all went out to this fancy and delicious Chinese meal. It was really nice and the food just kept coming and coming! We had some Shanghainese specialties, including sea cucumber. We also had hairy crabs, because October-November is the season for them and they’re very famous here. Also drunken chicken, a delicious fatty pork soup, spicy green beans, tofu, and an awesome duck soup that sadly came at the end of the meal when I was too full to have more than two bites. Plus about 5 more dishes that I can’t remember. It was an extravagant and delicious meal.

Thursday I got up and went to look at apartments with a rental agent and James. That was a little bit annoying actually, because they kept taking us to places that were in the 9,000-10,000RMB range, when I had said I wanted 5-6. So they were showing us huge places that were too expensive and it was frustrating trying to get them to understand what we wanted. And then I pointed at several decent looking small lane houses, and they just laughed and were like “oh no only poor Chinese people live there, very terrible inside, no satellite TV, we can’t show you!” So it seems that they just usher the waiguoren (foreigner) into the cushy high-rise soulless apartments because they think that’s what you want! But they are super expensive and have no character. Also the ones they were showing us were all in heavily commercial districts, and they say “look, location is very good, right near Ikea and Carrefour!” They just show you what they think you want and they steer you away from anything more local.

However, yesterday I went to look at a great place, which is actually where I will be living. It is in the former French Concession area, which is really nice because it’s mostly low-rise buildings, tree-lined streets, and old architecture. It is a four story lane house type place that I found out about from a contact I got through one of our customers. It should work out really well.