Tuesday, July 23, 2013

July 23 2013: Return home from Shanghai

Is that a big hairy spider under my mask?? ;)
There has been some discussion in the blog comments about the Chinese cultural perspective of tanning. I asked my Shanghai coworkers if darker or tanned skin is looked down upon. At first they didn't answer directly, but after a little prodding, they said that's not the case, but neither is it considered beautiful. Affluent Chinese men tend to find lighter skinned women more attractive.

Unintentionally Angry and
Happy Panda cookies
Reluctantly racing toward the finish line at 4pm, with only an hour remaining before I had to leave for the airport, I started noticing the office getting quieter and quieter, people seemed to be disappearing en masse. I noticed just before the last two people left.
"What's going on, where is everybody going?"
"Oh you didn't hear? The office will be cleaned... for mosquitos."
"And everyone has to leave?"
"Yes they will be spraying the plants. Mosquitos come from plants."

I guess somebody finds this appetizing??
And with that, I said goodbye to the last couple of remaining coworkers and donned the facemask I carry in Russia in case of Poplar tree allergen. I wasn't about to waste this opportunity to have an hour of quietude to finish up my work. So maybe I had to pretend there wasn't a guy walking around spraying lethal poison on plants. He wasn't wearing a mask at all, so at least I would be safer than he was!

Asiana 214 B777
The subway ride to the Maglev turned out to be free because I had a large suitcase and used the elevator which apparently skips right by the ticket turnstiles. When I got off the elevator and found myself on the platform without a ticket, I was prepared for a fight on the way out, but the same thing happened upon exit. The Maglev train is still the fastest and least expensive way to get to/from Shanghai Pudong Airport - I wonder why I always take a taxicab to the hotel when I arrive. I have a speedometer app on my phone and clocked the max speed in at 313 Km/h. The highlight of the flight home was the on-demand movie selection (thank you UAL B777), the veggie meals and ice cream onboard - and on a somber note - a clear view of the Asiana 214 crashed plane.

Monday, July 22, 2013

July 22 2013: Human Sweater in Shanghai

Monday I could see there were only two days remaining to accomplish all the work projects I came here for, and also dwingling time remaining to hit up my old haunts. I have a number of favorite restaurants, neighborhoods, shops, and experiences in Shanghai - yet this trip I mostly discovered new ones rather than going back to revisit the old ones.  At lunch I almost had a chance to visit a favorite juice and salad bar for a quick lunch near the office - while at the same time maximizing my diminishing work time - when at the last second a vendor invited me to lunch. I make it a habit of always accepting a lunch offer rather than exploring on my own. He is a local guy from Shanghai who tries hard - really hard - but his firm will never be able to meet the service level I would expect from a Western firm. For example, when I arrived last week, we had a big pow-wow to discuss project ideas and complaints about a system they designed and integrated. Their answer to my complaints was to blame our users - especially our high level VIP users - for not understanding how to use the system. Over the next few days, I proceeded to show them the technical glitches in their system and suggest possible solutions for their own system but it's hard for them to understand that the solution to users not understanding how to use the system is not to blame the users - we are stuck with them :) - it's to build a stable and easy-to-understand system.

I think it was my first ever Filet-O-Fish

He's a very nice and hardworking guy - powering through glitches and squashing bugs one at a time - and it was through broken English while we were walking through the mall in the bowels of the office complex that I learned he was treating me to McDonald's of all places. I mentioned that I only eat vegetables - like a Buddhist - and fish. I hadn't partaken in The Golden Arches in years and years - what do they have? My lunchmate happily suggested what he called the "Fish Hamburg" (aka Filet-O-Fish). What are you having? "Coke Cola, Hamburg" and fries - but he didn't know the English word for fries :)

Not sure if this is a compliment,
social commentary, or just a joke :)

In the evening, I took the metro to Jing'an Temple and had a lovely walk to my friend Adele's yoga studio Y+ in the French Concession. She's a great teacher, doing as much as she can in English, Mandarin, and of course Sanskrit. I had taken a class in the same room last Winter and found it incredibly warm; on a 100 degree day, it was ludicrously so. Adele explained that today was even warmer than usual because "Caucasians raise the temperature of the room." Is this a figurative thing, like changing the vibe or affecting the level of intensity? No, she says, Caucasians literally give off much more heat, and about 5 of the 16 people in a room designed for 12 were Caucasian.

Enjoying the performance with Adele at Brick

I am a really good sweater (and I don't mean the garment) so I generally don't mind the heat whatsoever. My coworkers were shocked that I went for a bike ride Sunday in 100 degree temperatures - but as long as I have a bottle of water, a few drops of well-placed sunblock, and a hat, I am happy as a clam, though I will be drenched in sweat :) that's what happened mid-yoga class, I had to shed my shirt when it resembled a towel dropped into a tub. If Adele is right, that explains why everyone here keeps complaining about the absolutely gorgeous summer weather - maybe they aren't able to radiate their heat and it gets trapped inside their bodies.

Shanghainese women LOVE potato chips on a stick!!
I asked my coworker what these are,
she said "it's potato...." then after
a pause, added "....it's delicious!!"

After class, we went to the restaurant Brick to catch Adele's friend, fellow yoga teacher, artist, and musician playing at the piano bar. Caitlin performed a mix of her own tunes (her husband David says they flow nonstop out of her at home - and only the verses he hears and remembers get recorded for posterity) and really creatively arranged covers in subtly themed setlists. Caitlin and David are from Byron Bay (the Easternmost point in Australia) and seem to have a ton of friends in Shanghai - people kept coming out throughout the evening to watch her performance. Eventually it got late, the show finished, Kaitlin's friends shuffled out, Adele and I caught up on each other's lives, and my last late-night in Shanghai was over.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

July 21 2013: Sweltering Shanghai

On my eye-catching bike
I assume this means stop?

After a week of buffet breakfasts, I was dying to do something outdoorsy. Took the Metro to Century Park station (exit 1), bought a park entrance ticket, and found a bike rental place just inside Gate 7. I have read that there are not many parks in cities in China, certainly very few with green areas where people can picnic or spend the day lying on the grass. Century Park is often compared to New York's Central Park in its variety of activities: paddle boating, small amusement park rides, coy fish pond, and, yes, bike rental.

Everybody posing with the American celebrity

They have bikes for all sizes of group, from single person bikes up to 5 person pedal carts that are a cross between a golf cart and the Flintstone mobile. The single person bikes are a lean-back style where the handles are next to the seat. I don't know if it was the strangeness of the bike (I didn't see anybody else with less than a four-person cart), my foreign look with a hat, sunglasses, and a long goatee poking through (nobody else was wearing sunglasses!), or just the fact that I was by myself, or all of the above, but I seemed to be the life of the party! During a 90 minute bike ride (I went around the park about 3 times), I was smiled at, giggled at, guffawed at, or stopped at least 30 times. Those comfortable with English would try to talk with me or ask me to pose for a photo, and I would try to ascertain what was so amusing. The closest I got was one guy said the word "safety" before backing down in a fit of shyness. Maybe it was my sunglasses and hat... Maybe the bike looked a bit like a children's bike... Maybe I looked like a celebrity??  I just don't know!!

Weird staged photoshoot in Century Park of two
Chinese women dressed up like Japanese Geishas??
Nico with one of his funny shirts
"I don't understand Chinese (no
matter how slowly you speak)"

[ Note: I showed the bike photo to my coworker and she gasped "Is it safe??" - that might explain a lot :) ]

One lady, who posed me for a series of photos, explained that the bike style is very interesting, and she wanted to know where she could rent one. Everyone at Century Park in Shanghai was my friend today, and on the way out I ran into a couple who seemed to know me "nice to see you again" - maybe they had been one of the couples laughing as I rode around. It turned out we were going the same way - to the metro and to almost the same stop. We chatted all the way across town, learning about each other piecemeal. First I learned they are students from Anji with a year left in their programs. What program? She is studying computers. Programming? No, networks. Microsoft? This took a bit more guessing until I learned that she is learning the OSI model. I don't know how they make a full 4-year program out of that, much less a career, but it's pretty cool :)

Retina texting, Colin pouring tea, at Retina Cafe

Found my way to Eco Village, an up-and-coming sustainable complex of shops. Bunny and Nico run The Squirrelz boutique which sells their own line of shoulder bags made from brand new but about-to-be-dumped hospital scrubs from a shuttering factory. They also have postcards and t-shirts with cool original designs - and sustainable wares from other designers / manufacturers - but you can tell their hearts are really in making and selling their own brand of stuff. Bought a cool t-shirt from the guys: Uncle Sam saying in Chinese "I want, I want you, I want your love" which is a line from a popular Chinese song.

"More than Toilet"

Nico was super sweet and showed me around the rest of the 'mall'. The roofdeck was a highlight, with a burgeoning urban garden for the neighborhood to use. He guided me over to Retina, a cafe run by camera and photography lovers Colin and Retina (Chinese can choose their own English name, why not name both yourself and your cafe after your favorite model Kodak camera?) Their own photography hangs on the walls, and while I enjoyed the tuna avocado pita with fresh squeezed Asian Pear juice, they were joyfully tinkering with their cameras and lenses and smartphones and laptops. Colin and Retina were sweet and it was relaxing to chill out for a bit and watch them tinker. They even gave me prints of a few of their photos to bring back home.

Sitting on my throne, ready to eat :)


Headed back to Tian Zi Fang, the gentrified former ancient ghetto. We had been rushed through after Thai dinner on Friday on the way to KTV, and I wanted to check it out at my own pace. It's a labyrinthian block of alleys, much wider and deeper than I originally gleaned. There were photo galleries, trinket shops, bars, restaurants, massage parlors, and ice cream stands - lots and lots of ice cream stands. At first I couldn't decide between gelato, froyo, "the original" frozen fruit bar, slushies... Walked though most on the alleys, half in search for a bathroom, even thought I'd found one, but actually I stumbled upon what I didn't even know I was looking for - a bathroom-themed restaurant called More than Toilet, featuring ice cream and coffees served out of little toilets!! After enjoying my poo-like ice cream out of a miniature potty, I made a suggestion to the manager that they hang up a roll of toilet paper at each table rather than having a napkin dispenser, but he didn't look amused. He insisted he understood my suggestion, but clearly didn't appreciate it. I think I know where he'd want me to write that comment...

Saturday, July 20, 2013

July 20 2013: Shanghai the Day After

Another hearty hotel buffet breakfast
I'm not sure how localized or widespread the KTV phenomenon lies - it's certainly very popular in Shanghai, probably in most urban areas in China, and possibly throughout Asia. Olga and I had witnessed some form of this at a karaoke bar in Japantown, San Francisco.

Area around my office - snake hedge!
My partners in crime last night joked that after you drink an expensive bottle of liquor in China, break the bottle! Otherwise it will find its way to be refilled with counterfeit alcohol. The idea of fake alcohol isn't completely off base - we did have an awful lot of alcohol (as did our karaoke hostesses) with very little effect.

I came all the way to China to have...
Akbar Russian Green Tea???
Spent the afternoon doing a little shopping, mostly for US coworkers. Got the requisite pashminas (100% cashmere? for $4? Really 100%??) and a bunch more cute stickers and pencils for gifts.

Toddler scootering around
the mall while I had dinner
Shopping was near Kush vegetarian restaurant so I stopped by again to see if I could find the Raw and Live food. I asked around and none of the staff seemed to know what I was going on about. I typed it into Google Translate, out popped 你有食物是活着的吗? Something must've been lost in translation because they became very apologetic that they don't serve any meat, and the friendly couple at the next table explained that the restaurant serves only vegetables. I insisted that I'm vegetarian too but I thought they had live veggie meals. Then they said the translation was ok, but they never heard of live food before, so everyone assumed I was looking for meat :) I don't know where I got the idea, maybe because the restaurant is named "Live Kush"!!

Friday, July 19, 2013

July 19 2013: TGIF Shanghai!

The following blog post contains mature themes featuring immature men, performed solely for research purposes. Please take with a very heavy dose of NaCl.

Nice summer day - view from my office
Friday I had lunch with a coworker, we went to a Southern China dumpling place in the mall under our office. It may be the first (and only!) Chinese meal this trip. Most people who take me out tend to go to Japanese, Thai, Singaporean, Hong Konger, and other Asians. We passed through a section of the mall that seemed dedicated to baby gear and young childrens clothes and toys. I remarked that China seems to be going through a bit of a baby boom - I've seen an awful lot of pregnant women and young babies. My coworker said it's not possible to have a baby boom in China - since the One-Child Policy was enacted in 1979 - there can never be a baby boom - and in fact the population will start to decrease in 2015 (after 35 years of this policy). I'm hoping a mathematician or statistician can correct me here - but I don't see why they can't be a baby boom, even with the population starting to decrease. The middle class has boomed - and continues to blossom according to my observations of wealth on this trip - in the past 10 years, and many people born since the policy was enacted are now in their 20s and 30s, why wouldn't there be a boom? Just because you are limited to one child doesn't mean the timing of those childrens' births will be equally spread out over time. The other question I have - why is it taking 35 years for the population to decrease? Is it because urban parents are limited to two one child per two adults - but rural parents can sometimes have 6 to 8 to help with the farms - does that explain the delay? Somebody please explain in the comments:)

Tian Zi Fang
Went to dinner with a business associate and some British foreigners he was entertaining. We ended up at Lapis Thai restaurant in Tian Zi Fang, a really neat part of town I'd never been to before (near Da Pu Qiao metro station). Basically they took some very old houses - poor families without toilets still living in some to this day - and converted the block into a fun trendy old town. It's hard to explain, maybe the photo will help illustrate. The Thai food was wonderful, and I learned some funny expressions, such as 'Cantonese will eat everything that has four legs besides a table, everything with wings apart from a plane' - this in response to my pickiness for vegetables, fish, and seafood. A good Canton I would not make!

Dodo, hostess with the mostest
After dinner, we stumbled over to a KTV lounge, which is a karaoke bar for business travelers. When you get off the elevator, you are greeted by a row of 40 women welcoming you, in unison, in Mandarin. You are guided into a private room that could accommodate twice your group (you'll see why in a minute), given a chance to settle in, then the first batch of women arrive. They all greet you, this time by taking turns down the row, and saying the town or region they are from. I didn't hear any "Shanghai" so either this is an industry for women looking to get out of small towns, or perhaps they mentioned their neighborhood. You are subtly explained the code - there are two dress colors (one is for women who are "more aggressive"), and women holding their hands in front of their body are able to be "taken out." If you don't see a lady to your liking, after a few minutes these women are dismissed and another batch arrives with the same routine. It's a bit like a beauty pageant where you can ask questions, perhaps ask one or two women something about themselves, or to pose in some way. Any woman with distinguishing talents - such as English fluency - is pointed out. After a few rounds of parading women out, anybody still alone is assigned a mate for the evening. You are repeatedly given a chance to change women throughout the evening, though most people stick with their selections.

Dodo keeping the party going
You might, for example, have selected your mate by asking the women to smile. The rest of your group might think you were looking for nice teeth or a subservient personality. In actuality, when seeing one laugh slightly, you might have thought you saw a shared dark sense of humor that too saw the absurdity in the situation. Throughout the rest of your time at the KTV, your personal hostess is there to refill your wine and water glasses, drink when you drink, choose some songs and sing, play drinking games such as dice and rock paper scissors, bring you to the floor to dance together when an appropriate song comes on, and near the end there is what one of my local counterparts whispered to me as "the special dance" where the lights are turned off and you get a lap dance from every girl in the room, in rotation, for about 30 seconds each.

The sun just beginning to rise over Pudong
Then the local guys go home and all of the foreigners stay for a little more. The ladies change into their street clothes and the singing and drinking (but no more dancing) continues for another hour. Then the ladies want to go home (to theirs, not yours) and you crazy chaps head to The Bund to continue the stag party (most of the guys are married, one of the guys is engaged, so it might as well be a stag party). You end up at one of the all-night roofdeck clubs such as Bar Rouge, partying until the sun comes up. Literally, with a club on a roof deck, it's easy to know when to go home. Take a taxicab back to your hotel, pass out in bed with your still clothes on, and wake up dressed and ready for an afternoon of shopping at 3pm!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

July 18 2013: Shanghai, what's up with all your parasols?

Look at all those parasols!
I'm fascinated with Shanghai's obsession with parasols. What makes somebody leave the house, see the weather is perfectly amazing out, and think "today I'll take an umbrella in case of extra awesomeness."  Despite assurances that the weather would be unbearable and the air unbreathable, I'm finding it quite nice out (in 10-minute chunks walking between hotel and office).  Maybe this weekend I'll go for a bike ride to see just how nice it really is :)

Men and women alike all enjoy a good parasol
Went to dinner with a coworker and her friend. The friend works at the Shanghai office of a big American company, part of her project is to develop a Facebook app. The thing is that China has no access to Facebook, it's blocked by the Great Firewall of China. They seem to have found ways around it, which she says is completely legal. It sounds like it's not illegal to access blocked websites such as Facebook/Twitter/Youtube, it's just complicated.

Ordered Americano at McDonald's but
couldn't find anything to put in it. Asked for
cream or milk, a man in line translated my
request to Barista, this is what I got :)
The friend was talking about her American boss, a man in his sixties, who comes to Shanghai and walks all around the Bund, across the Huangpu River (note to self: find that pedestrian bridge), around PuDong - that's how crazy he is. I replied that I had walked that distance - or further - during previous trips to Shanghai. "Why do you people walk everywhere in the city?" Because it's a great way to see the sights, experience the culture, find things you didn't know existed. Don't you walk around when you travel? "Sure but here are so many people!!!" The Chinese middle class has just recently started traveling - and it seems they go to remote places to get away from crowded cities.

Sushi feast!!
I placed my first intentional raw fish sushi order. I think on my visit in 2012 some sushi was ordered family style and I might've had a bite - but this was the first time I opened a menu and picked a bunch of sushi. Tasty? you betcha! Safe? will tell you tomorrow!

Japanese gelato
Treated myself to some Japanese gelato. Most of the flavors were pretty normal, so I went for "Blackened Sesame", the mysterious "From Kyoto" (seems to have a strong green tea taste) and "From Okinawa" (Okinawa tastes like coffee). Treated the rest of my body to a run at the gym and a soak in the jacuzzi....nice!

Follow-up to a photo I took in Jan 2012
The Respiratory Financial Centre is still under
construction but now it's "breathing" smoke or steam

Correction: it has been pointed out that, based on Chinese translation, I actually ordered "Mochi From Kyoto" and "Premium Coffee".  The white colored "From Okinawa", which apparently I didn't actually order, translates as "Black Sugar."

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

July 17 2013: Summer in Shanghai!

I guess 40 is an unlucky number? Sorry "39"
"Is it cold out??" the hotel receptionist asked as I arrived for check-in lugging my bags and wearing the warm-up jacket I needed in San Francisco and on the plane. This was a good sign, you don't often get sarcasm as the first statement by an employee in a luxury hotel in China - usually they are overly formal and polite. It's going to be a good trip!

Fish smoking by the fire at Japanese restaurant in IFC

When I selected my hotel for this trip - about a 6 minute walk from the office - I had been warned by coworkers that I should take a taxicab in the morning because the heat (90-100 F) and humidity are so high, I would arrive at the office drenched and exhausted. I am proud to say 6 minutes is not so bad and there were no deleterious effects - at least nobody complained!

Smartphones are getting bigger and bigger these days!!

Coworkers took me to Japanese lunch (I had their famous smoked fish) while we caught up on gossip. Who got married, who's having a baby, who quit to start their own company, who is buying what gadgets, who is travelling to exotic places. My workers are increasingly well-off financially, I wonder if this is the case for the majority of China, or it just the sector where we work.

Every conceivable type of cute collapsable tote bag

Had dinner at a tasty and creative Vegetarian restaurant called Kush (hah!) that just so happens to be on the same block as my favorite Shanghai brewpub... coincidence? The lentil burger, pumpkin soup, and cool rain (watermelon juice with a pinch of sea salt) hit the spot! The menu - which thoughtfully lists calorie counts - says you can pick your toppings, but the so-called toppings came on the side in a bowl, and they look at you funny as you transfer grilled onions, mushrooms, and sprouts over to your burger. But funny looks are just a part of travel, are they not? On my way out, I saw a sign saying they also have live and raw foods - have to come back to see what that's about!

Dugite Vanilla Stout at The Brew - I love their glasses!

On the way through the mall to the brewpub THE BREW, I passed the Mecca of cute Japanese and Korean stickers and pens and little notebooks. If you're reading this now, don't be surprised to see one turn up on your birthday!