Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Fellow travelers in Shanghai - May 25 2011

I've had the most amazing discovery. One of my coworkers, a young assistant born and raised in Shanghai, is a big fan of Bill Bryson. For those not in the know, he is a witty (but not snarky) travel writer who focuses mainly on English-speaking regions. His writing speaks with curiosity and wonder, but at the same time, authority (mine has been described as having a childlike naive), immense humor, and of course, hyperbole. Bill Bryson is very much the heir to Mark Twain's pen.

I noticed she had his memoir The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid on her desk, and it kicked off this illuminating discussion.

A portion of her Bill Bryson collection at home
My coworker had bought the book for 20 RMB ($3) during her lunch break from one of the innumerable street vendors selling (almost certainly) knock-off books and pirated CDs. I wonder what the audience is here for this type of book. The vendors have very limited space - essentially a wheelbarrow with a flat top. Does this entrepreneur stock it for the ex-pat market living in Shanghai? Does the local Shanghainese community dream of travel to the West? My coworker has read several of his books, about half of them translated into Chinese. Able to read both, she slightly prefers the translation and feels most of the humor carries over well. My young friend confided that she is working on the arduous process of applying for a visa to visit Britain. She - and those of her generation in China - have come such a long way since we first met, when we were standing around the kitchen in our old office and I asked if she had any plans to travel. 'Where would I go? How would I get there?' It seemed almost unfathomable. That was February 2008. Now she is reading Lonely Planet guidebooks in her spare time.

Went to lunch with a few coworkers - they couldn't decide if the place is Cantonese or Shanghainese - my guess is the latter. They brought up all sorts of interesting topics with no prodding from me.

Sign in front of a car repair shop
There is some buzz about organic food, chemical-free pesticides, and the like. The consensus is that there is fledgling demand (opportunity!!) for a farm-to-plate organic movement, and some percentage of the population would pay a premium for it, but people are so jaded and distrustful of the farm/distribution/market machine that they feel any organic certification/labeling would be faked - especially in light of the recent food safety scandals in recent years. I hear there once was an organic market in Hangzhou, but it went out of business due to low demand. The market forces couldn't sustain a. single. organic. shop. The irony is that farmers are setting aside small plots of land to grow organic food for their own families. Clearly much needs to be done to win consumer trust - I wonder where to start. How have we overcome similar challenges?

They also brought of the topic of homosexuality. According to my lunchmates, there are no legal or career limitations to coming out of the closet (or "coming out of the box" as she put it). They can't get married, which puts China's gay rights about on par with California's (come on California, the bar has been set very low). They told the story of a gay couple they know who is looking for a lesbian couple so they could have a baby. "Couldn't they have two babies?", I asked. This set off a flurry of discussion in Mandarin, I never quite got a clarification on that point :)

A short walk after work and I found the exact tea shop where I had made a blend 3 years ago. The place looks exactly the same, and their English is very broken, but after some pantomime on my part, they were able to explain that I should NEVER mix different teas together. I guess the "gunpowder black" I had made in 2008 is the last of a breed.

Mandalay Rainbow Ice Cream at Lost Heaven
Most of my Shanghainese coworkers don't like food from the Yunnan region (or Szechuan or Hunan for that matter). Most of them find it too spicy, not just picante-spicy, but too bold. Lost Heaven restaurant, and the Yunnan region of China it represents, is a very very special place. The closest I can come to describing it is like Burmese food 100 years in the past + in a parallel dimension that was similar yet not quite the same as ours + a remote region trying to preserve its ancient history/culture/traditions. Anyway, I really wanted to come tonight and nobody could dissuade me.

Popped back into the Boxing Cat brewpub on the way back to my hotel. What a great way to end a great day and a terrific trip. I like this brewpub a lot more than I remember enjoying it last year. Maybe I've come to terms with the fact that I can enjoy an American restaurant (I'm talking to you ElementFresh) in a foreign country. Or maybe it's my recent discovery that there are some good non-dark beers in the world. Either way, I'm glad Boxing Cat and I have come to terms with each other.

On the way back to my hotel, I ran into the same knock-off book carts. I can't believe I did this, especially after what happened this morning, but I advised 3 Indian businessmen to buy the knock-off Time Traveler's Wife rather than the knock-off A Short History of Everything. I don't know who should be more upset with me: Audrey or Bill.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Brought my tie over for a Mai Tai - Shanghai May 24 2011

Today was all work, until suddenly at 4pm I got invited to dinner at 6. Not one to turn down a good opportunity, I quickly wrapped up a couple of things, postponed several others, and quickly jumped the metro for a fitting of my 2 suits.

The suits fit better than expected. I had gone for just a fitting, with the final delivery later this week, but I couldn't find anything that needed alteration, so I took the 2 suits with me.

Online version of the sign I saw in the store, minus the tiny gelato cone

I ran from the metro over to the restaurant, only to find it's the same Thai place that Adele brought me for Sunday brunch. The directions and map I had were all in Chinese, I only knew a few landmarks and followed the contour of the road on the map. With a group of 9 people, I was able to try many different dishes. We got into a discussion about alcohol tolerance - apparently some Asians are extremely intolerant and others are immune - our group being a good sampling of the range.

Picked this up at the Japanese shop, the name was just too funny to pass up

Many of the same folks from Saturday night were there, minus the driving music. The first half went quite well, but after a few drinks, they switched exclusively to Mandarin. I picked up words and phrases, but overall it became difficult to connect.

As my experience in China grows deeper, the limitations of my lack of language become more pronounced.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Shanghai - Communication is key and all I see are locks - May 23 2011

I'm still super sore from that Chinese massage, in case anybody is wondering.

Decided I needed to give my stomach a break, so I went to ElementFresh for lunch. Nothing is more bland and American than ElementFresh. Unfortunately they closed the restaurant today due to a burst pipe. Wagas to the rescue! I don't know if Wagas is usually this packed - or if every ElementFresh customer simultaneously had the same idea - but this place was packed. My food was actually delivered before I found a seat, just barely though.

MetroCity Mall has a Beard Papas!!
I had been seated for a few minutes and noticed a solo guy searching hopelessly for a seat, so I motioned for him to join my small table. It was a good call as the guy is friendly, insightful, and fun to chat with. He's an architect, permanently based in Hong Kong, but living in Shanghai for 4 years now. We talked about all sorts of things, primarily the difficulty in finding a competent, proactive workforce with attention to detail - I am referring to the string of consultants I have worked with, the same is true in his field of architecture as well. His theory is a simple formula: a country of "only child"ren + parents suddenly have some money = instant laziness. I don't think it's quite that simple, but it is an amusing theory.

At the end of the day today, my projects were all going according to plan, except I was getting a lot of low-level connectivity intermittency. This shouldn't happen unless you have sketchy equipment, so I told my consultant I wanted to try replacing all of the cables - and he suggested an electronics market that he was headed towards anyway. I jumped at the chance to possibly explore a new neighborhood! I should tell you that he is not one of my regular consultants and he speaks/understands as many words in English as I do in Chinese (and probably as many useful words too as my words only come in handy when drinking beverages and ordering food). Once outside the comfort of the office, and not about to order drinks, we had to find the very few words we spoke of a common tongue. In the end, it was very difficult for me to explain I was looking for a higher quality product, sturdy construction, perhaps a brand name. The only thing I was able to explain successfully was "CAT6". CAT6 is CAT6, right? We'll see.

Something is definitely lost intranslation
When we had finished shopping, he kept pushing me towards the taxicab stoop, and I just couldn't get through to him that I want to walk around the area and then take the metro, so I pretended to get in line for a cab while he disappeared down into the metro station.

Ended up walking through MetroCity mall. Passed by Iceason, another location of the gelato shop from the other day. This one had a label in English: "Strawberry Cookie". I guess Vanilla is just the standard answer if they don't know what it's called.

They also had a placard with an oversized picture of a healthy looking apple with a miniaturized gelato cone next to it. The sign read "One Scoop Of Gelato Approximately Equals To An Apple's Calorie" they are trying to convince English-reading people to replace apples with gelato in their diet? Why stop there? How about something like "Ten Scoops Of Gelato Approximately Equals To An Apple's Fiber and Vitamin." Brilliant.

Adorable Japanese treat shop

 Wandered into a shop that seems to specialize in over-the-top-cute prepackaged Japanese treats. There was one middle-aged lady there who spoke a little bit of English, but she didn't seem to know what the items were, so she was translating my questions to the young ladies working there, who would try to make their best guesses. I was trying to motion and ask one of the girls if this is gum - she replied that you make a suit out of it and then breathe fire - at least that's what I got from the charades. Then she giggled and I laughed and she fell down laughing and I cracked up and pretty soon the whole store was in hysterics. It was definitely the highlight of the day.

Walked over the Lost Heaven in the French Concession, another location of a restaurant that hosted one of our events last year. I was really hoping to not have an all-Western-food day, and Lost Heaven Yunnan folk cuisine is such a special way to do it, but it wasn't meant to be. They were all full, even the bar area was booked for a party. Made a reservation for two to return tomorrow - I have 24 hours to find a date. Ended up at Boxing Cat Brewpub, which I visited once about a year ago. It's nice to go at the end of the trip when you're dying for American food and microbrewed beer. In the middle of the trip, it's just a tease.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Traditional culture in post-contemporary China - May 22 2011

Photo from Saturday night's festivities - very rich food at 5:00 in the morning

Adele sipping a cappuccino
I met with my friend Adele for brunch. We walked from my hotel through the former French Concession to a Thai place called Lapis. It has a really pretty backyard with fountains and pools and lush vegetation. Adele is a bit of a riddle: she considers herself laid back, but when we were txting to figure out where and when to meet, eat, and walk, she replied to each of my suggestions with alternative ideas. Every location, every day, every time to meet, every idea what we could do. When I pinged her on it, Adele said she doesn't like to be in control -- but to me it seems like she always is. Case in point, the way we originally met. She was brought in as a consultant to help advise on the events we were planning for Shanghai last October, and when they weren't going according to her vision, she stepped up and did them herself. This kind of proactivity and attention to detail is profoundly rare in modern China. Adele is primarily a yoga instructor in Shanghai - and also runs retreats to Hangzhou and other places. Starting next week she's leading a retreat where the participants are fasting, taking a vow of silence through the course, and presumably practicing an excruciating amount of yoga. We talked a lot about energy flow and Qi and the mind's ability to control disease and stuff like that. I'll try to catch one of her drop-in classes next time I'm town.

Fireworks at traditional wedding
During brunch, we kept hearing fireworks go off, and I'd run outside to see what's going on. It's a wedding tradition to set off fireworks and firecrackers at a wedding, apparently in the middle of the street. Although I would hate to be driving down the street when it's going off - especially as the street was already under major construction and the cars were queueing and swerving to share a single open lane - it was great fun to watch. Traditionally, a couple will wait until they can afford to buy a flat/house before they will get married. With the current housing crisis in China (workers make tens of thousands, apartments cost millions), couples find themselves stuck in limbo.

Wedding carriage
Took the metro to the China Pavilion in Pudong. The lines were way too long during the Expo in October, and this is the last week of the Pavilion's extended run. Everything other than the China pavilion seems to have been torn down over the past 6 months (or much less).

Dave outside the China Pavilion
The China pavilion is quite remarkable, if for no other reason, than to experience the pushing crowds. I was waiting in a fairly organized line, waiting my turn to enter the top floor with the continuous LCD screen wall exhibit, and they set us free. The room had no more than 20 people in it. Released and thinking that was the end of a series of lines, I went to the bathroom for A MINUTE. Popped back and the room was suddenly filled with hundreds if not a thousand screaming and pushing people. I had to do a double-take to see if I had come out the wrong way - there's no way it could be the same room - but indeed it was. Maybe it was because the museum was about to close in an hour, so they opened the floodgates...

Wall-to-wall, ceiling-to-floor seemless LCD
At any rate, the LCD exhibit is really neat - a very very long room that's covered from floor to ceiling with a seamless LCD screen depicting life in an ancient Chinese village. Boats move, camels roam, fishermen catch, villagers trade. Camels? Yeah, camels. It was like watching a ginormous World of Warcraft game.

Chinese community of the future
The next room is setup depicting the community of the future (it's not clear what they are planning to do with the community of the present), complete with an animated projection of families living in the apartment building of the future, surrounded on both sides by model facades, along with actual fountains and a real girl playing a recording of a flute. I guess you had to be there. It was sort of like a giant 3D 3-walled Barbie's dream house. They showed a diverse culture living in harmony with all the post-contemporary conveniences in an updated stucco version of Walt Disney's 1950s version of the future.

Got one!
Then the next floor has a ride where they take you around artistic representations of lake county, snowy regions, mountainous locales... the highlight for me was trying to get an unblurred photo of myself as we moved past various mirrors - and of course the ride-on-rails itself.

Chinese writing moving within the waterfall
The next floor had an exhibit on China's efforts for the environment and energy efficiency. It didn't capture my attention, but there was a remarkable waterfall they throw in at the very end. It's a round room you pass through on the exit escalator - and you are surrounded on all sides by waterfalls that are dropping water in different patterns: sheets, waves, the Expo logo, and even Chinese phrases. Its placement made it feel like an afterthought, but I loved it. I'll give them the benefit of the doubt that all water is recaptured and recycled through the system - it is an environmental efficiency exhibit after all.

Decided to make it an early night and get caught up. After a few hours spent online, I walked over in the rain to a massage parlor recommended by Big boss. He said to get the Chinese massage because the European/oil massage is so inauthentic. I have never willingly subjected myself to a more painful experience. I'm not sure what happened - I might've passed out from the pain - but I came to with the diminutive fastidious young lady prodding me to get up and saying "finish, finish." I think I would've been ok with inauthentic.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Shanghai parties hard with no signs of Rapture - May 21 2011

Found a good Cigarillo at M!NT club
Davidoff China no longer sells my favorite cigarillos :(  Will be on the lookout for other shops as the state-owned tobacconist doesn't sell imported cigars. Maybe I'll be able to find something during our travels through Scandinavia.

 One of my coworkers is from Harbin and another is from a neighboring town. Everybody is extremely curious about my experiences in Russia, especially about what type of homes people live in, whether people are happy... I seem to have steered the conversation towards corruption, political uneasiness, funny encounters with police - they absolutely loved hearing stories about run-ins with police during each of my visits to Russia. My coworkers say the most experience they have with police in China is when they find a [parking] ticket on their window.

The only other Caucasian on the metro -
drinking a large soda from McDonald's
Went to the market to design two suits. The tailor remembered me from over a year ago - actually I ran into her in October, but I wasn't ready to shop at the time, and she remembered me then too. A friend with a strong fashion sense had sent me links to 4 suits she liked, I narrowed down the design elements to two of each (narrow or heavy round cut on the suit jacket, single or double vent in back of jacket, notch or peak lapel, etc) and made one of each style: one in charcoal and one in navy with grey and light purple pinstripes. One will be very traditional and the other very contemporary - or in the broken English of my tailor, one is for young man, one for older man.

While I was in the market, I did some shopping - mostly gifts - but I did pick up a few nice work shirts. Almost everything requires lots of haggling. If you're short on time/patience/energy, you can't even get a pair of socks without a lot of work. Part of the negotiation of my final purchase involved buying cold drinks (milk) for the two shopkeepers.

The "Vanilla" gelato sign in yellow - can anyone translate??
Stopped for gelato in People's Square metro transfer station. There was one flavor that didn't have an English label. I asked the server what that flavor is, and he said it's Vanilla. I got a sample, and you can clearly discern berry, chunks of chocolate, and other goodies. All the goodies got lost in translation. Ordered a cup of the "Vanilla" - it was better than all the other traditional gelato flavors I sampled. Yum!

Doesn't look or taste anything like Vanilla
On my way back to the hotel, I stopped by a tea place where I had customized a blend during my first trip 3 years ago. At least it's a very similar location and layout, if not the same exact store. They speak English now, so there's less mystery. When I asked about the Tea Cherry and Tea Strawberry, they very clearly explain that it's fruit soaked in a bit of tea (rather than the other way around). This is a marked improvement in clarity from 3 years ago. Then I tried to make a blend of tea and they looked at me very strangely. "If you want green and longing, for example, you'll have to fill them in separate bags." I wonder if I had completely misunderstood the first time and made something strange and unusual - or maybe I am in a very different store.

We partied like rock stars
Stopped back at the hotel for a 2-hour nap before heading out to the club. Met a crowd of my younger Shanghai coworkers at the M1NT club from 11pm-3:30am. Good thing I took that nap! The place is indeed so loud that you can't hear yourself think, which actually worked out pretty well. If you're wondering how bottle service works in China, with everyone being quite allergic to alcohol, I'll tell you. We started off with a bottle of champagne, then another. Then they brought out a bottle of grey goose and something that seemed to be a large virgin frozen daiquiri - and they mix them into small glasses for people. Then the same thing with cape codders. I tried mine and I'm pretty sure I didn't taste any alcohol, so I added my own vodka. Were most people drinking just cranberry juice?? Possibly: there were 12 of us and I don't know if we ever finished the bottle even after many rounds. After a LOT of dancing and juice drinking, we headed to a late-nite Cantonese restaurant. I don't know if this is the kind of food I crave in the middle of the night. Frog legs and chicken feet and duck livers... it takes a certain mood and temperament for me. But I tried a little of a lot of things, and went back for seconds of wonton soup and the veggies that the frogs and chickens and ducks were resting in.

Guy wearing ironic t-shirt on the Shanghai metro
 There seems to be a growing t-shirt culture in Shanghai. I guess I can't say it's growing because I've never been here in the summer before, but it seems recent to me. In addition to this guy on the metro, two of the guys I went to the club with were wearing t-shirts (one with "Life is fun" and the other said "This is me"). In my memory, the Chinese dress formally, so the most informal thing I packed is a golf shirt and the jeans I wore on the plane. But I'm finding they dress much more casually than that - especially this generation of 20-somethings. At this rate, I'll be getting a lot of mileage out of that one outfit.

Four time zones away, see how Olga is experiencing Spring in St Petersburg:

Friday, May 20, 2011

Shanghai prison break 5/20/2011

Went to lunch at a Japanese restaurant with several coworkers. One young lady was talking about how she's afraid to "prison break" her iphone in case it will become a "stone". Very cute. As a sign of the growing middle class, almost everybody I meet through work circles has a smartphone and an iPod Touch or iPad. Either salaries are on the rise or people are making these purchases more of a priority, or some of each. I think it's some of each.

Tried a stick of gum that is said to be so strong that it's illegal to sell in the US. I didn't notice anything ridiculously strong, it's very much like Altoids mints, but it's cool to try any gum that's so minty it's dangerous!

Stayed late at work, then got a txt message from my Big boss inviting me for a drink. Hung out with him sidewalkside at a fun nouveau riche French restaurant in a trendy area near our office. It was great fun watching the comings and goings of people, the hostess dancing in place, drunk American guys riding in the back of a flatbed pickup truck, the random oversized teddy bear salesman, the patrons gawking at the oversized teddy bears...

Walked back to the hotel at the end of a long day, past many street vendors selling presumably knock-off books, CDs, DVDs. Noticed a CD set called "Songs for Japan" - Amazon describes it as a star-studded album collection benefitting Japan earthquake and Pacific tsunami relief.  You have to be a real jerk to make, sell, or buy pirated charity benefit music.  I'm just sayin'

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Always discovering new things - Shanghai 5/19/2011

Watermelon at breakfast - I hope they
don't explode AFTER you eat them
One of my big bosses from the US is visiting Shanghai this week and we have a couple days of overlap. Today he took me to lunch at a relaxed Cantonese place, which initially I didn't recognize, but eventually I figured out is a great Hong Kong-style late-night restaurant with a lounge-like feel that I had wandered into for dinner over a year ago. Completely different feel between Winter night and Summer day. Rereading my previous description, I'm glad I came back:
I spotted Tsui Wah Restaurant and followed a Chinese couple in. This place is cool. I'm not sure how to describe it, it looks like an L.A. or Vegas glitzy diner, 90% of customers are Chinese, extensive Chinese menu broken down by region, good cold milk tea. They list the top 10 items right at the front of the menu, I love that. I'd come back here again - maybe next time I'm in town and in the mood for a Hong Kong chain restaurant.

Beverage menu at the Hunan restaurant
Some of my coworkers are having a party this weekend and they invited me. I'm super excited, although the invitation and all RSVPs were in Chinese, so I'm not sure how that will play out. The only other time I've been to that club, I remember the music was so loud that you can't really hear the person you're talking with... so I'm not particularly worried about a language barrier.

Popped into a nice Hunan (the other spicy province) restaurant for dinner. Some wacky misspellings and awkward translations ensued. You can get an idea from this photo of the beverage menu. I tried to order the Purge fire & Swallows the run lung, apparently it's a section of calming teas. Ended up with the watermelon juice instead - it definitely calmed things down when my lips and tongue went completely numb from the chili beef w/ prawns and the spicy garlic asparagus.

Chingrish is back - for nostalgic reasons?
Last time I was in Shanghai, I noticed with dismay that many many English-language signs had been properly retranslated as a matter of National pride due to the number of tourists coming to the World Expo. For example, "cash recycling" signs on ATMs were replaced with "withdrawal/deposit." Tonight I noticed with glee that the "cash recycling" signs are back. Long Live Chingrish.

Had planned to meet some coworkers at the Cotton Club - another jazz club near my office/hotel. One guy got held up at a meeting and the other didn't show - he was on his way to swim laps in a nearby gym pool last I saw him - I'll be looking for this pool over the weekend. I stayed for a set and a half, and just as I had left, he called to say he made it to the club (2 hours late), but my brain and body had already checked out.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

On the road again - in Shanghai 5/18/2011

This is my first time visiting China in the summer – my fifth trip in total – previously being all in the winter and autumn. I am pleasantly surprised to see locals walking around in shorts and sandals - it was hard to imagine what their summer outfits would be. I have only been here a few hours (arrived this evening), but already I'm having some new experiences. Stepped out of the hotel and found an unfamiliar street to wander down. Tried to grab a beer at the Boxing Cat brewpub, where I had been once before, but it was closed. I was being forced to explore something new. Kept wondering and ended up in a French cafe filled with locals. Also passed another nice European-looking restaurant filled with locals, made a mental note for later. Then I took in a show at the JZ club, a famous Shanghai jazz club that, for one reason or another, I had never been able to make it to during showtime. Not bad for having arrived just this evening.