26 June 2009

Airport Music

Why do airports (and public places in general for that matter) insist on playing really bad music? I was at Pudong airport earlier this week, and the Kenny G-esque, instrumental, synthetic jazz version of “I’m All Out of Love” really made me want to jump out of the window. In the unlikely event that I ever own or run an airport, the background music will actually be worth listening to. And now it’s “Desparado,” rendered excruciatingly painful by fake jazz horns and keyboards...

Say No to Terrorism

While I’m posting pictures, here’s one I saw on the back of a motor scooter here.








I think this is based on the classy stickers you see on pickup trucks where people will display their loyalty to the brand of their truck. Like if you have a Ford truck, you put a sticker of this guy Calvin peeing on the Chevy emblem. It’s pretty highbrow stuff. Anyway, this one was a little confused. Here we have Calvin peeing on the emblem for Dodge trucks, along with the words “BIN LSADEN.” Does Bin Lsaden drive a Dodge??

Seoul's Muslim District




I learned that Seoul has a fairly large Muslim population (200,000), both Korean and foreign-born. Anyway, just up the hill from the Itaewon area was a big mosque and lots of Muslim businesses where I spotted this sign. It’s funny that this was so close to Itaewon, the district in Seoul that is famous for its all-out nightlife and general debauchery. It’s the well-known location of Seoul’s “Hooker Hill” which is Seoul’s red light district where you see lots of foreigners (particularly American soldiers) patronizing the “bars.” Anyway, I laughed when I saw this poster on a store window, the dos and don’ts of modest dress. For the record, I saw not a single person adhering to the more conservative standard of dress...

Swine Flu

I was in Korea a few weeks ago and traveling around Asia definitely makes you realize how seriously they are taking the whole swine flu thing. While it seems mostly out of the attention of American media that I read, it is still on people’s minds here. A headline updating the city’s swine flu count, or some other news about swine flue, is on the front page of the Shanghai Daily almost every day here.

I arrived in Busan, a southern port city in Korea, on June 1 and we were let off the plane like normal. But going through customs everybody’s temperature was checked by a nurse, and everyone working in the airport was wearing a protective mask. This wasn’t a big deal but just meant a longer line at immigration.

The real surprise was on returning to China. Our plane did not taxi to a gate. Instead we pulled off to a corner of the runway. I could see the airport fence out of the window. It seemed like we were as far away from the terminal as possible. There was no announcement about what was going on, so people were starting to get up even though the crew members were telling everyone to stay seated. After a few minutes, these guys in hazmat suits boarded the plane.










Everyone on the airplane started talking loudly and wondering what was going on. The pilot came on the speaker and told everybody to stay seated and take off hats. Lots of people (like me) pulled out their camera phones, amused by the novelty and the “Outbreak” aspect of the whole thing. They came down the aisle and pointed some type of laser thermometer at every passenger. About 10% of people had high readings, and those people were tested with a normal thermometer. Luckily they were cleared and our plane was swine flu free, so we were able to go to the gate and go through immigration as normal.

27 May 2009

FML



I bought a painting a few weeks ago, looking to do something about the very bare walls in my apartment. See the photo above. I think it’s a pretty cool painting, and at 400 RMB (about $50) for a 3 foot X 4 foot oil painting, you can’t really beat it. Notice the oh-so-subtle intersection of an image of Chairman Mao with the ubiquitous symbol of capitalism, the 12-digit UPC barcode. Anyway, the other day ayi was admiring the painting and asked me how much it cost. Oh no, it was really cheap I said, only 400 kuai, I picked it up while walking along Huai Hai Lu the other day, I said very casually. As soon as the words came out of my mouth it struck me, only the day before I had paid her 400 kuai. For a months work. Oops. What can you really say at that point? Oh, no, I mean I’ve been saving for many months for this. Yeah, right. So I guess it’s idiot comments like mine that fuel the notion among Chinese that all Americans are filthy rich and use $100 bills as toilet paper.

That brings up the whole subject of having an ayi (maid who does laundry, cleaning, dishes, other stuff around the house), but that’s another post. Anyway, the whole incident would have fit right in on the very entertaining (in the way that it is entertaining to watch others go down in flames) FML website, but I didn’t have the time to post it.

M1NT






Speaking of shark fin soup, there was a huge shark tank at the club that I went to on Saturday night.  There were about 30 small sharks in a huge tank.  That’s the Dom Perignon champagne bar in the background.  Only in Shanghai...

Shark Fin Soup

Yesterday, for the second time in a weeks (it must be in season?), I was served shark fin soup at a business dinner.  This is local delicacy which is very famous and seems to be enjoyed by everybody.  The soup is made of shark fins, in a thick gelatinous broth that seems to be laden with MSG.  Cilantro, bean sprouts, and vinegar are served on the table and you doctor up your individual bowl of soup accordingly.  This is not a cheap dish.  Kind of like the Shanghai hairy crabs that I wrote about before, it is a delicacy and you pay for the privilege, about $100 for a small bowl at a nice restaurant.  The soup tastes OK.  In my opinion it is nothing spectacular.  The shark fins themselves are fibrous and kind of stringy; they don’t have much flavor.  No big deal.

Well, the problem is with the method uses to get shark fins.  I had heard from someone recently that they simply catch a shark, haul it on board, saw off the fins, and then dump it back overboard.  Without its fins, the shark can’t swim; it sinks to the bottom and dies.  I kind of doubted the veracity of this story.  Kind of like the one guy who insisted that in Hong Kong they sell babies to make soup.  That’s another post.  Anyway, this article from CNN (http://www.cnn.com/2008/WORLD/asiapcf/12/10/pip.shark.finning/index.html) confirms that the method used to gather shark fins is indeed pretty problematic:


To satiate the appetites of upwardly mobile Chinese, fishermen traverse all corners of the Earth's oceans in search of sharks or, more specifically, their fins. Because space is limited on fishing vessels and shark bodies are bulky and not considered as valuable, fishermen often catch the sharks, saw off their fins and toss the sharks back into the water. Without their fins, sharks cannot swim and they sink to the ocean floor, where they're picked at by other fish and left to die.


Upward of 100 million sharks are killed annually, almost entirely for their fins for shark fin soup.

So what to do?  As somebody’s guest at a meal (especially in China) it is rude to flat out refuse to eat something.  You have to at least try it.  Plus, one person orders for the whole table, and ordering shark fin soup is a way of showing respect for the guest by ordering a very expensive soup, and thus being a good and generous host.  Also, by the time that bowl of soup lands on the table, that shark (to put it harshly) has landed on the ocean floor.  So refusing to eat it at that moment has no effect other than to snub your hosts and let the soup go to waste.  So you might say, take a stand, lecture the table on why you think it’s problematic to kill an animal for one small part and then throw it overboard to starve at the bottom of the ocean.  Well, that’s easier said than done, especially in China, where politically correct American ideas about food politics and animal cruelty are simply not understood and too foreign to have any cultural relevance.  In a country where widespread famine killed tens of millions just a generation ago, it’s more like, aren’t we lucky to have enough to eat now, not how was that pig feeling when he was slaughtered.

At least when we kill cows and pigs and chickens we eat most of the animal.  Does that make it any better?  Maybe there’s really no distinction between eating a burger (which I don’t plan to give up anytime soon) and eating shark fin soup.  I’m sure most vegetarians would argue that it’s not much different.  Anyway, I haven’t yet decided my course of action for the next time I’m served shark fin soup, but I’m thinking about it.

26 May 2009

The $10,000 BMW X5






See the two pictures above.  The first is the BMW X5.  The second is the Shuanghuan Sceo, a Chinese made SUV.  Surely the resemblance isn’t merely coincidental.  I have seen a few of these on the roads here but this was the first time that I managed to get a picture.  This is just one example of the many “cloned” cars that roam China’s roads.  Take a popular car from a famous international brand, copy the design almost exactly, manufacture cheaply, sell in the local market for a fraction of the cost of the genuine imported article.

To some this is shameless disregard for intellectual property.  After all, BMW surely invested a good amount for a design staff for the original car.  Shuanghuan, of China’s northeastern Hebei province, sidestepped that detail, and instead focused on their strength, cheap manufacturing.  So to others it is just an example of the ingenuity of a developing country doing its best to compete on the unlevel playing field of the global economy.

Here’s a link to the car on Shuanghuan’s website, proudly proclaiming that the Sceo “adopts the style of romantic, vigorous and powerful, and it shows out the vigorous and sport of the youth, and guide the vogue of the current.”  Sounds like a pretty good deal.

I know one thing, when I bought The Wrestler and The Girlfriend Experience on DVD yesterday from the guy on the corner for $1 each, I definitely wasn’t complaining.

The Great Firewall

In a really annoying development, the kind folks behind the Great Firewall of China have decided to block Blogger (any .blogspot domains) so that is why I have not updated here in a while. I finally figured out a way to post through email. We’ll see if this goes through!

Things here have been good recently. Work is picking up and I’ve been busy. The weather has been OK although it’s starting to get more hazy and hotter every day. It’s already high 70s to low 80s most days here. The good thing is that I’ll be in the U.S. for most of the month of August so I will avoid the worst of it.

Local news....Nancy Pelosi is in Shanghai and Beijing this week, meeting John Kerry and a bunch of Chinese officials in Xi’an for talks on the environment and economy later this week. I hope at least that she gets conned by the tea scam. This is where a really friendly local comes up to you in a public place. They say that they want to practice their English and make new friends, would you like to go have a cup of tea? They take you to a predetermined teahouse, where they have an agreement with the owner. You drink tea together, pleased with the new friend you’ve made, impressed by their near-flawless English, enjoying the afternoon. Then, when you say you better be going, you’re presented with the bill, which could be around 1000 or 2000 kuai, depending on how badly they want to rip you off. This is like $150-300. The door will be blocked by some serious looking Chinese dudes. You are forced to pay, and if you don’t have enough money, believe me, they know where the nearest ATM is and they’ll escort you. This happens pretty frequently to foreign tourists here, including to one kid on my trip back in 2006. I like to think that I’d be able to get away, flip over the table, charge through the kitchen, and bust out the back door running. But apparently it isn’t that easy. Anyway, I hope Pelosi gets taken by this scheme!

I went to the most elaborate KTV I’ve ever been to last week. It was modeled after Buckingham Palace. It was fronted by an enormous marble staircase and the building looked like a palace; it was huge. The waiter and hosts were wearing coat and tails. The waitresses (xiao mei) were dressed in white gowns like princesses. The traditional attire did not however extend to the drinking girls (xiao jie). Anyway, it was a pretty luxurious place that I’d never go to on my own but not bad for a night on somebody else’s dime.




12 May 2009

H1N1

Today the first case of swine flu (H1N1) was reported in China. It was discovered in Chengdu (capital of Sichuan) in a man who was returning from the U.S. People here (and around the world) are really much more concerned about this than I think is necessary. I was just talking to a friend and he said deadpan, as we were ending our conversation, "well, if this like SARS then we all dead, so have fun while you can." OK then. Oh, and I ate pork for dinner last night, which people are now warning not to do.

Now I don't want to laugh in the face of swine flu, lest it hear me and seek me out, but is this really a big deal? What are there, a few thousand people sick around the world? 60 deaths? And those that have it get a mild flu? Anyway, this kind of stuff isn't taken lightly here, so I'm glad that the government is quarantining the passengers from the flight that the infected man was found on, but in reality, riding in a taxi in Shanghai poses far greater risk to life and limb on a daily basis than swine flu does.

06 May 2009

Thursday Night in Shanghai

In keeping with my laziness of just posting other people's stuff today.....here's a really entertaining event listing, courtesy of SmartShanghai. It's what I'll be doing tomorrow night. Obviously, I was hooked at the mention of the Talking Heads. Plus it's at C's Bar, home of just about the cheapest beers in Shanghai at 10 kuai.

Baijiu Robot: Robot Panic!

685 Dingxi Lu, near Yanan Xi Lu

Swine Flu. Economic Meltdown. Global Warming. The Death of Western Capitalism. Hype. Join Heatwolves and Mau Mau for their most ghetto party yet. Dance in baijiu and broken glass to Italo Disco, Electroclash, Rick James, disco bullshit (nu and old), Talking Heads, and some hard Brazilian drug dealer booty bass. No cover. Free baijiu in the alley by the la mian. Starts 10pm.

Lucy's Birthday

This great short story was written by a Chinese guy nicknamed Domy. It's an account of Lucy's birthday party. Lucy is a foreigner teaching English in Hunan province. My friend Rebecca also went to the party and passed on the story to me, so I thought I'd share. It's a pretty entertaining piece of work.


Lucy's Birthday Party

The moment I was offline yesterday afternoon, I swallowed my dinner as quickly as possible and took a taxi directly to the so-called Folk Bar. It was a new word for the taxi driver. He just dropped me off near the walking street and drove off. I had to hold the bouquet of flowers and the folded banner (with Happy Birthday, Lucy on) in my arms and searched for it. It took me almost 15 minutes to find it. It was a bangalow, just across from the Golden Time on Jiefang West Road. It was a small bar with the foreign style. The music makes people intoxicated. Most of the songs are country music, my favorite kind.

The instant I got inside, I found more than 15 foreigners there. I guessed they were all coming to attend Lucy’s birthday party. I went to the bar service counter and handed the flowers to the waiter there. At first sight the waiter looked foreign, so I told her in English who I was and that he had better hind away the flowers and put up the banner. Later I found he was actually a Chinese like me. But he seemed to know so much English. He could speak to me in English. That may be the reason why so many foreigners would go to this bar for chattings so often.

When the banner was put up, many eyes fell on it. “Happy Birthday, Lucy!” Shouts and cheers rose from the crowd. “A good idea!” someone cried out. Hearing this, I felt so proud ‘cause it’s my idea!

Later, I began to find a seat. The bar was small. But there were seats enough. Not big ones, but the rows of chairs along with the counter. With a glass of purified water, I began to find someone to chat with but they had been chatting already. I had no other way but to interrupt them and introduced myself. Most of them are Americans. And when they heard my name, they were kind of surprised. They said they had heard about me. Maybe Karen and Lucy mentioned me many times before them when they were chatting.

It was only 7:40 p.m. They would not come until 8:20. During the long waiting, I had to be associable, so I began to hunt for the objectives to talk about. Otherwise waiting for Lucy and Karen’s arrival would be boring.

I walked around in the dark light and met several acquaintances. One is Menjiao, who is now my co-worker, an artist. He taught fine arts in our school. And he had a great talent in drawing pictures, I think. He showed me the gift she would send Lucy --- a card made by himself. The cover is so special. It looks like a drawing, but with Lucy’s name inside. Very funny and creative. Another is Bridget, a beautiful lady whom we sang and danced in a karaoke hall when I treated her friends. She had a good memory. She recognised me immediately. She remembered me maybe just because of my singing talent. Haha… When I was puzzled and asked her for her name clumsily, she said she knew me and then she hummed to me “every shalalala…every wowowo…” Then we laughed. Yes, no wonder she sounded so familiar to me.

I was then introduced to some of her friends sitting around us. It was hard to remember their names. Rebbeca and Luke left a deep impression on me. Rebbeca is a beautiful young lady, seemingly a little girl. She looked like a teenager, like my senior kids. But she said she was 23! She had a large mouth and a prominent nose. Her smiles are a little exaggerating and charming. She said she is teaching in Hengyang, where I am from.

Steve is my old friend. He is now working in Fuzhong. We had dinner and sang songs together several times. He looks cool with his head bald. I don’t know whether he does it on purpose or natually he has no hair. But he is really humorous. I kidded with him, asking how many girls are after him. He said a little. When I corrected him by saying, “You mean, a few.” He laughingly said “yep”. Then we both laughed heartily.

Bill and Jane came a short time later. They are both my collegues. Bill was a very considerate woman. She came without having dinner and besides she had to be at school that night according to the planned schedule. But considering that she was invited to attend Lucy’s birthday party, she felt it hard to refuse. Jane was the very one who spent her birthday that night. She said she had just had dinner with her family. I felt very excited. How nice of the two! They could not come if they explained to Lucy. When I told it to Lucy and Karen, they were really moved. I was lucky to have such nice collegues.

Before Lucy and Karen came, several other foreign friends joined us. They were from different corners of Hunan province. Huaihua, Xiangtang, Zhuzhou, Liuyang, Loudi, Hengyang, Changsha. Approximately, the number of foreign friends climbed to 20.

Lucy finally came. Screams and blessings roared in the bar. Someone started the song “Happy birthday”, and everyone present joined in singing. The scene was very touching. I guess it must be the most meaningful and unforgettable birthday party for Lucy. It was a surprise party. And it was really a surprise for HER!

Everyone hugged Lucy. Everyone sent their blessings to her. She was happy. And we were happy, too.

Time passed quickly and we took a lot of pictures and chatted for almost two hours. We felt we had better leave first. After all, they knew one another better and had a lot to share. Only at the weekends can these foreign friends go out for relaxations. Living and working in a foreign country for such a long time is really not easy. Let them talk. Let them have fun themselves. We said goodbye to them and left the bar at about 11.pm.

It must be a sleepless night for Lucy and her friends!

Update

Well it has been a while since I've posted here. I'm back in Shanghai now after two weeks in the U.S. in mid April. Before that I was in Korea for a few days. Being back in Shanghai has been great. The weather here has been really great since I got back.....it has been sunny, blue skies, and 65 degrees here literally for 12 or so days since I arrived back in Shanghai, with the exception of rain showers last Saturday night. It’s been really unbelievable. No smog, no haze, light pollution, really great. So that’s been nice. I figure we'll be paying for it though when it is 90 degrees and oppressively humid and hazy in July and August.

Not much else to say at the moment. I'm just realizing that all I've talked about is the weather which is really pathetic...so I'll try to redeem this by posting some photos.



Hong Kong Harbor view at night




Rugby Sevens bar scene...this picture doesn't really do it justice




The Cungking Mansions, where we were going to stay until Caroline chickened out




Night view of the new Shanghai World Financial Center, currently the second or third tallest building in the world



This guy was standing outside the bar with his pet monkey the other night. When it's him and an old lady begging for money, guess who gets the dough? Come on grandma, don't you have any skills or tricks? No? Just a paper cup? Sorry, this dude has a monkey that does flips and retrieves things and climbs up my leg. With all the beggars and homeless people here, you really need something to set yourself apart.




The remains of one of the frogs I ate for dinner last night. It was pretty tasty. I was the only one in my group of dining companions that did not eat the head (missing on this guy) and torso too, but just the legs.

14 April 2009

Hong Kong

I spent a few days in Hong Kong at the end of March and had a great time. I was struck by how different Hong Kong is from mainland China. Of course I was expecting some differences due to Hong Kong's roughly 100 years under British rule. Hong Kong on the whole seemed much wealthier and more modern, but also dirtier and with a better-preserved sense of history than Shanghai. It is more modern in that the transportation system is better, there is an incredibly dense collection of high rise buildings and a downtown that is more compact and more uniformly modern. But it also seemed dirtier and older than Shanghai in many places. There were more old buildings and much less new construction. The subway stations were old and had some character unlike those in Shanghai which all look the same, brand new. It was also interesting how much English is spoken there. I speak not a word of Cantonese, so my first approach would be to use Mandarin, but whenever that failed (about 50% of the time), I would revert to English and usually people understood. From my casual observation, it seems like there's a much greater percentage of foreigners living in HK versus Shanghai, and the city reflects that; it feels more cosmopolitan and global than Shanghai.

The weekend I went was the annual Hong Kong Sevens, a big rugby tournament. I didn't actually see any rugby, but the city had a carnival like (read: drunken) atmosphere once nighttime fell. It was a fun weekend and I found myself thinking that maybe I could spend a year or two in Hong Kong. There seem to be lots of job opportunities, so it's something I'll consider once I decide to make my next move.

Security is tight

Random weird experience when I was on the bus from Shenzhen to Hong Kong:

After I bought my bus ticket in the Shenzhen airport I was directed to a waiting room where they checked my passport and interrogated me about the length of my intended stay in Hong Kong, the reason for my trip, and whether or not I planned to return to China. This seemed a little excessive, especially because whenever I've gone to Korea or Taiwan there has been basically no security checks upon leaving China.

Anyway, once we got on the bus we were instructed to sit only in the assigned seats on our ticket. Then the driver collected all of our ticket stubs. Then something a little bit strange happened: the driver stood at the front of the bus, instructed everybody to remove hats and glasses, lift their heads and face straight forward. He came down the aisle with a video camera and recorded everyone, first on the right aisle and then on the left.

While I've noticed video cameras at the airport as you go through the immigration inspection to enter China, I've never seen this kind of security to exit China. It was weird because once we actually got to the border crossing to enter Hong Kong, immigration was a breeze. The officers at the Hong Kong border didn't ask me anything and granted me a 90 day visa on the spot.

01 April 2009

Different degrees of political correctness...

I was getting a few things at the drug store the other day when this strange tube of toothpaste caught my eye:


Darlie toothpaste. No big deal right? Well, the Chinese is 黑人牙膏 (hei ren ya gao) which literally means "black person toothpaste." Can you imagine that in the U.S.? This is a really popular brand here which I've seen all over but never really bothered to look at the box more closely. A little research showed that the Darlie brand is actually owned by Colgate-Palmolive. For a long time the toothpaste was actually called Darkie, but due to "changing sensibilities," the K was conveniently changed to an L in the 1980s.

This is just one example of the completely different attitudes towards race and political correctness. Chinese people here reoutinely refer to themselves as "yellow people," which I think in the U.S. would be at least mildly offensive. White skin is seen as the most desirable. The drug stores are filled with whitening creams and potions. This isn't so much of a racist thing, but rather a way to prove your wealth. In China to have dark skin is a sign that you are probably a farmer working every day under the sun or other manual laborer working outside. It means you're poor and uneducated. On the other hand, having white skin (especially for women) means you're educated, have a life of leisure and don't have to work, or work in an office.

02 March 2009

All kids love burgers

Random event I just remembered from last weekend:

I was at Babyface with some Chinese friends and a friend from Bates. It is a well known club here in Shanghai, extremely popular with wealthy locals but also notoriously unwelcoming to foreigners. It was here where a guy on my study abroad trip in 2006 decided to go for a solo night out and got into a fight (he lost, badly) with a bunch of Chinese guys. Since I was with a bunch of Chinese people, and also like to think that I'm less of a jerk than the aforementioned guy, it was all fine.

The place is really interesting as an example of modern Chinese culture/wealth. It is ultrapretentious and ridiculous in the Chinese “nouveau riche” way. Expensive to be expensive....display your wealth etc. It's pretty amusing. You buy a table and a bottle (Johnnie Walker or Chivas Regal for $150!) and it comes with mixers and ice and a dedicated server who is so ridiculously attentive it’s crazy. Every minute, she lifts your glass and wipes the residual moisture with a tissue. Somebody smokes 1 cigarette and immediately she brings a new ashtray. You drop your dice that you’re using to play the dice drinking game and she picks them up for you. You take a sip of your drink and she immediately refills it. It's crazy. Also, don't think about going to the bar to get a drink. It's table service only and you can only order through your server. Very rigid. Also, just like a Chinese meal, one person will pay for the whole evening. Don't even think about trying to pay your share.

Anyway, I went outside to get some fresh air around 2AM and was greeted by about 10 little kids, about 5-10 years old, who immediately swarmed me, holding on to my legs, raising their plastic cups toward me, wide smiles on their dirty faces, begging for money. "Money, money! Please, please, please money!" Now, I typically don't give these kids money because I think it's pretty messed up that their parents (the ones a few feet away who train them and "direct" them to foreigners to ask for money) use them as beggars. Their parents are always the ones trying to sell you flowers and cigarettes, while their cute kids just beg you for money.

However, I was feeling particularly generous, and mindful of the $400 bar tab inside, so I asked these kids if they had had anything to eat lately. Their parents were shocked that I could speak some Chinese. "Mei you!!!! 没有!!!" (no we haven't) the kids all shouted in unison. I eyed the McDonald's right next door. I told them to wait a minute while I went next door and bought 10 hamburgers. The kids were jumping and I had to shake them off my leg and tell them to hold on while I handed around the burgers. Immediately their parents approached me, thanked me, and pushed their flowers and cigarettes at me. No, sorry, I still don't want to buy anything from you, and why don't you take your kids somewhere to get some sleep? The kids were happy and full for a few hours at least.

Hong Kong's Chungking Mansion

I'm meeting my friend Caroline, who's coming in from London, for a long weekend in Hong Kong at the end of March. It turns out that our trip lines up with the Hong Kong Sevens which is apparently somewhat to Hong Kong like Mardi Gras is to New Orleans. Supposed to be a big party weekend:
The Hong Kong Rugby Sevens is traditionally one of if not the biggest event on the Hong Kong sporting calendar. As such, there is a tremendous party atmosphere, with particular emphasis on the South Stand, where hordes of rugby fans dress up and dance for most of the duration. Activities that typically ensue as the weekend progresses include the throwing of empty beer jugs around the South Stand, Mexican waves, and streakers running across the pitch. Since 2007 the South Stand has been made officially accessible to over-18s only, due to its hyper and somewhat provocative atmosphere, although this rule is not strictly policed.
See YouTube for more on this.

So we made a deal: she'd take care of the hotel/hostel in Hong Kong and I'd book the flights from HK to Shanghai. We'd settle the difference. Well, I spoke to Caroline last night ans she informed me that she had booked the Las Vegas Guest House. Great, I thought. We had both agreed on booking a hostel or cheap hotel so we could spend our money on food, alcohol, tourist stuff, traveling around the island, etc. No need to stay at the Ritz. At least not when I'm paying. I laughed when I asked a buddy for advice on going to HK, particularly for this weekend, and he mentioned when he went to Sevens he had always stayed at the JW Marriott or the Mandarin Oriental. $500/night hotels? Great when someone else is paying. Plus, this place is called the Las Vegas Guest House. Sounds great. Seeing as I've never been to Vegas, this would be a good substitute. Speaking of Vegas substitutes, did you know that gambling revenue in Macau (the "Vegas of Asia," a small island off of China's south coast which was basically a Portugese colony until 1999) now eclipses that of Las Vegas itself? For more on this, check out this extremely colorful character: Stanley Ho.

Anyway, back to the main subject. When Caroline first told me about the hostel, I thought it'd be fine. Then I did a little research and discovered that it is located in the Chung King Mansion. I couldn't believe it. I thought she was joking. The Chung King Mansion. This was the ONE place where everyone who I'd talked to about going to HK told me to avoid. Seriously, people warned me, don't bring any valuables, don't carry any cash on you, this place is exceedingly dodgy. And I heard these things from some pretty inveterate travelers. Not the kind of people who are accustomed to 5-star hotels. I had been widely advised to just avoid the whole place.

This clip gives you an idea.

See here for a great article on the "chung king experience." Bottom line is that this place is a huge melting pot. It is a big complex made of five concrete blocks which are all filled with hostels and various vendors and shops. It attracts backpackers and travelers from around the world looking to crash on the cheap. It is a haven for immigrants, transients, and vendors from India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Sri Lanka. It's also known to be a favorite of drug dealers, petty criminals and thieves, prostitutes, schemers and dreamers, etc. As you might guess, it's also known to have some of the best ethnic food in all of Hong Kong.

In all honesty, I'm actually pretty excited for this to be my first HK experience. I'm sure we'll be fine if we stick to that rule of keeping no valuables in the room and use common sense. I have plenty of time to return and stay at the Peninsula (where they maintain the world's largest fleet of Rolls Royce Phantoms, 14 of 'em at about $450,000 each) and eat at Alain Ducasse. I'm looking forward to doing it this way first. Also, in fairness to Caroline, our hostel supposedly gets good reviews for cleanliness and, most importantly, will cost us each just $19 per night, which is about as cheap as it gets in Hong Kong.

We'll see what I have to say once I actually experience it first hand...

19 February 2009

A Typical "Business" Trip

It all started off, as usual, pretty innocuously...just a one-night trip to an industrial city for a few factory visits and meetings. A nice morning drive to Cixi provides some time to catch up on email and reading. The drive there takes you across the newly completed Hangzhou Bay Bridge, which is the longest trans-oceanic bridge in the world at 22 miles. It is definitely weird to be in the middle of the ocean on a huge bridge and not being able to see land in any direction.


The day's meetings were pretty productive. After a quick rest and shower at the hotel it was time for dinner. This dinner wasn't that different from previous dinners that I've had here, but it ocurred to me that at every turn there were examples of the unique culture and etiquette that are part of a Chinese (business) meal. It just seemed to bring together a variety of typical experiences which sparked some thoughts.

Some ground rules/observations/tips...

  • Don't be shy about what foods you like. You will thank yourself later. I casually told my hosts that the enormous spiny lobster in the center of the table was especially delicious. I have never seen a lobster so big, nothing like what you get in the U.S. They responded by boasting that it was imported from Australia and cost 1000RMB (about $150). The guy next to me then proceeded to place about half of the thing onto my plate. At a table of 12. I felt guilty, but only for a very fleeting moment.
  • When toasting someone, it is customary for the glass of the older person, the more respected person, the guest of honor, etc., to be above the glass of the other person. It is a way to show respect, by lowering your glass to someone elses so the rim of your glass clinks their glass halfway down. In practice though, this often leads to hilarious situations where you both try to show respect, glasses racing downwards to the table surface, so that finally they're both on the same level. It takes some practice to get used to deftly positioning your glass below the other person's. One guy actually lifted my arm so my glass was above his.
  • Don't say that you don't like a particular food. It just leads to awkwardness, endless questions, and the attention of the whole table turning to the foreigner (as if you don't already stick out enough being white). Just say everything is good. If someone puts food on your plate, even if you don't want to eat it, thank them. Just bury it in your rice bowl when they aren't looking or subtly catch the server's eye and motion for a new plate. New plates are provided frequently throughout the meal anyway because the fact that all of the dishes are served with the inedible parts (chicken/beef/pork bones, fish heads, fish skin/scales, shrimp heads and shells, etc.) intact means that quite a bit of detritus accumulates as the meal progresses. These plate changes are great opportunities to get rid of the food you can't bring yourself to eat.
  • You will invariably be asked to pose for a group photo. Why not? Makes you feel tall at least.
  • When the guy next to you shows off his diamond-studded gold Rolex watch, repeatedly telling you that it cost 300,000RMB (about $44,000), act very impressed. Status symbols are extremely important in China. How else to differentiate oneself among a nation of 1.3 billion? He is not telling you about the watch anecdotally. He is telling you because he wants you to be impressed by his wealth.
  • That leads into the general topic of money in China. Be prepared for questions about money. It is completely normal to ask people how much their things cost. Almost every time I meet a new Chinese person here, I am asked how much my rent is (they laugh and tell me I'm getting ripped off because I'm a foreigner), how much my cellphone was (they audibly scoff when I tell them it was only 300 kuai, the cheapest one in the store), what my salary is (I don't tell them this), etc. Part of this is just curiosity because I'm an American and they assume all Americans are filthy rich. Furthermore, the American notion that it's impolite to talk about money is completely nonexistent here. There is no such thing as "old money" in China. All the money is new money because it's all been made in the last 20 years or so with the advent of rampant Capitalism that really took off in the 1990s. The accumulation of luxury goods and the comparison of who has what is the new national pastime among China's wealthy.
  • Always accept a ride from dinner to KTV in the factory boss's brand new BMW 7 series. You know life is good when there's a built-in refrigerator in the back seat...
  • There is a 100% tax imposed on luxury cars here, so above a certain threshhold, cars start to get really expensive. I was told that a 7 Series or S Class here costs the equivalent of $300,000. Totally insane.
  • Enjoy the fresh fruit and unlimited alcohol at KTV.
  • Don't be too freaked out when one of the Chinese guys starts making bird wing shadows on the projector screen. Apparently this is SOP.....?
  • Never refuse a toast. It's just not worth all the explaining and subsequent disappointment. If you don't want to drink, then just toast the guy and raise your glass and pretend to drink. Or say "yi ban" to indicate that you'll drink only half of your glass instead of the standard "gan bei" (empty your glass). Pretty soon people will be drunk enough to not remember, or at least not be slighted by your moderation.
  • If at 10:00, you realize that you've been drinking for a good 4 hours and you have to get up at 7 the next morning, don't be shy about saying your goodbyes and hopping in a cab back to your hotel. Never mind the fact that everyone else will stay at KTV until 2AM. By this point all the Chinese guys are very drunk. Think dancing on tables, breaking glasses, screaming karaoke, grabbing the waitresses kind of drunk. They'll be temporarily angry with you and try to convince you to stay, but it'll be fine in the morning. Get in that cab. You will not regret it.
  • And finally, always use a good western-style toilet while you have the opportunity, like at your hotel. And carry your own toilet paper. Your next option might not be so hot.

14 February 2009

Riding the Maglev

I was taking a colleague back to the airport yesterday and decided that it would be much easier and faster to take the subway and the maglev train. If you try to drive to and from Pudong International at 4pm on a Friday you are setting yourself up for a 4 hour roundtrip journey in excruciating traffic. So we took the maglev. This is the super-high-speed train that runs out to the Pudong Airport. I don't exactly understand magnetic levitation and how this thing works, but bottom line is that it reaches a top speed of 431 km/h (about 270 mph) and gets you to the airport in 7 minutes. It is scary fast.

Anyway, as we were waiting at the station, some guys came up to me with their camera and motioned for a photo. It was clear that these guys didn't have a flight to catch, but were just riding the maglev for the experience. I could tell from how they were dressed and their accents that they weren't from Shanghai and weren't exactly international travelers. They later told me they were from Shanxi province, a somewhat bleak industrial province in north central China from what I remember from a few years ago.

Anyway, I assumed that they wanted me to take a picture of them all together in front of the train, so I reached for the camera, but they said no, no, we want picture with you. It was a shock to experience this in Shanghai. I remember experiences like this from 2006 when we were traveling in parts of rural China where some people hadn't ever seen foreigners before, and we all got accustomed to being extreme noveltys and the subjects of endless fascination. Kids handed us markers and asked us to sign their clothing. We got off the bus for lunch and people came to stare. We walked into the one bar in town in a random small city and were dragged to people's tables to drink and eat for free.

But in Shanghai nobody looks twice at the white guy. There are so many foreigners in this city that everyone is used to it and you rarely feel scrutinized or noticed. I have gotten used to being anonymous and not a spectacle as you often are as a white person in other parts of China. So I was surprised when they each took turns standing beside me and grinning, some putting their arms around me, while the others took photos, and everyone laughed.

08 February 2009

Sushi

I just had one of the most delicious meals of my life in Taipei. I arrived in Taipei a day early, so Saturday night I went out to get some dinner.

I walked in and was seated at the sushi bar and the food started coming. No tuna or salmon to be found (you can have these anywhere, right?) but simply the freshest, most delicious seafood I have ever eaten. All raw, the flavor of the fish mostly unadorned. The weird thing is that because there was no menu and because I don't understand the Chinese for the obscure kinds of fish I ate, I had no clue what I was eating for the most part. A few things I recognized or could understand were mackerel, shrimp, salmon roe, big prawns, scallop, and clam, but there were about a dozen other kinds of fish that I had.

I have never had sushi anywhere near this good. It wasn’t exactly cheap, but at $60, it was definitely a steal for the quality and quantity. I had no say in what I ate. The two chefs across from me just kept serving course after course of sashimi and nigiri. Add to that some grilled kobe beef flavored with salt and pepper and a few beers, and you have yourself a knockout meal.

28 January 2009

Finally Returning

So it's been a while since I've written here, but now seems like a good time since I'm returning to China in 5 days.

After a much longer stay in the U.S. than originally expected (thank you global economic crisis!), I am finally headed back to Shanghai in a few days. I'll be arriving on February 3 and am really looking forward to getting back. It's definitely been nice to be in the U.S., seeing friends and family, traveling a little bit, etc., but I was just starting to feel at home in Shanghai so I can't wait to be there again.

I know it's going to be a bit of culture shock all over again. I've been in the U.S. for almost 6 weeks, which is long enough to get accustomed to drivers who follow traffic laws, service people in stores and restaurants who actually try to serve, internet that works without the infringement of the "Great Firewall," meat served independently of bones, salad, personal space, .......the list goes on. It's nice in some ways, but at this point what I want is to be in Shanghai. I definitely miss things about China. I guess this goes both ways. I miss the everyday routines that I was getting used to in Shanghai. The security guard who wears the same pair of camouflage pants every day and at night sleeps in the tiny gatehouse at the top of my apartment block's drive (I think we're friends but he probably just thinks I'm the crazy foreigner), the fruit and vegetable markets right on my block, the newsstand on the corner where I buy the Shanghai Daily most mornings, the walk to the subway. It's strange to think how quickly one can get accustomed to things.

Some exciting things coming up too. A week of traveling for work (Tianjin, Qingdao, Taiwan) will be a chance to see some new places, especially Taiwan which I've wanted to go to for a while. Also some good live music, albeit on complete opposite ends of the spectrum: Jose Gonzalez on February 18 and Paul van Dyk on February 20. Other than that, just returning to the everyday-exciting life in Shanghai!

Few interesting reads while I'm at it:

Is India now the rightful place of the American Dream?
If you can appreciate bathroom humor, there's this roundup of English streets and towns.
A profile of the guy some call China's Tom Wolfe, documenting the excesses and absurdities of capitalism run wild in modern China.

03 January 2009

Slow day at work

It's a slow Friday afternoon at work...sounds like a good time for an update here since I haven't written in a while. I've been back in the U.S. for about two weeks now, and I'm actually surprised at how quickly I've adjusted back to life here. I guess it's what I've known for most of my life so of course the readjustment period isn't that difficult. That said, I definitely miss living in China and am looking forward to returning. Unfortunately, due to the slowdown in our business, my return to Shanghai has been delayed until February 1. Spending the rest of January in Albany isn't exactly ideal, but it's out of my hands. I just need to keep practicing my Chinese and listening to ChinesePod so I don't completely forget everything!

Some interesting stuff that I've been reading today:

Manufacturing Slows Around the World. This is especially interesting/frustrating because it's what's essentially delaying my return to China!

In the face of falling demand for its exports abroad, China tries to reshape its economy with a greater focus on domestic consumption.

The end of cheap money in the U.S. I wonder if the economic crisis will actually make Americans reverse our negative savings rate and live within our means? And how about our government and its own little negative savings rate, also known as a $10 trillion+ national deficit?

Also, a plea to Barry, because I'm sure he's reading, please put a $1.00 per gallon tax on gasoline as soon as you enter office! He had the wisdom to resist the completely backwards and inane Clinton/McCain proposed "gas tax holiday" during the campaign, so maybe he will also make the tough but right decision to take a strong step in weaning the U.S. from cheap oil.

I saw a great movie last night, well worth checking out for a good (if completely implausible) story, vibrant and strangely beautiful cinematography, a cool soundtrack, and a glimpse of life in Mumbai.

Here's a really interesting interview with Lee Kuan Yew, the man wholed Singapore during its transformation from an impoverished agricultural nation to a global economic powerhouse. He was the Prime Minister following independence from Britain and now holds the somewhat comical title of "Minister Mentor." Sounds kind of like Putin's current role, but probably not quite as malevolent. In a surprising act of modesty, he credits East Asian notions of family and individual responsibility, a strong work ethic, respect for education, and culture as the driving forces behind East Asian (Japan, South Korea, Singapore, China, etc.) economic development. He points to the cultural and moral breakdown in Western democratic societies and the belief that government can solve all problems as the ultimate downfall of the West. This is from 1994...I wonder what he'd have to say today.

That's about it for now. Not much to report on "Living and Working in China," since I'm currently Living and Working in Albany, NY.