Monday, November 30, 2009

Xian (She-an) Spectacle

We didn't spend this day after Thanksgiving fighting the crowds at the mall or eating turkey leftovers.  We decided to take advantage of a day off work to head to Midwest China (I guess it's their version of Indiana, as wheat and corn are two of the most important crops for the area). 

We flew to Xian early Friday morning.  Xian is most famous as an ancient capital of seven Chinese dynasties, most of which were between 1800-2100 years ago.  Outside of Xian is what many are calling the Eighth Wonder of the World, the Terracotta Warriors.  About 35 years ago, a farmer was digging a well on his land in the Shaanxi province and found some terracotta pottery pieces, or so he thought.  He contacted the government and they unearthed nearly 2,000 lifesized Terracotta Warriors, though there are thought to be more than 7,000 total, each with a unique likeness and dress. 

The warriors were built for Emperor QinShihuang, the first emperor of China, to be his army in his afterlife. 

It was stunning.  One of those things that you almost can't fathom, even after spending nearly four hours at the site and museum.  We even met the famous farmer!

It was pretty cold in Xian and there was snow on the ground, but at least there weren't any crowds.

The city Xian itself left much to be desired.  We saw several other interesting sites, mostly Buddhist temples, and some other burial tombs. 

We tried Hairy Crab, which is in season right now.  They are freshwater crabs and look pretty scary, but we thought "when in China".  They also don't taste very good, but at least we tried it. 

This archer is the only one that they've found completely intact thus far.  The rest are broken, but they take painstaking measures to properly put them back together, and align them in attack formation.

Emperor and Empress LeRoy

Rubbing the lioness's cub (that's what her paw is on) is supposed to bring women children.

Big Wild Goose Pagoda, built 700 years ago

The jump for joy, Mary Tyler Moore-style.  Our tour guide insisted - crazy Americans!  Then two Chinese girls asked us to be in a similar photo with them.  This is in front to the Shaanxi Museum - lots of historical artifacts.

At first we thought this was a chart of different mustaches, but found out that it was actually different types of eyebrows.

 We got to ring the bell that wakes the Buddhist monks.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving Shanghai-style (updated)

Happy turkey day!  We wish we were home, but we'll celebrate 7,500 miles away.  Since turkey is incredibly difficult to find in China (they're big pork eaters, a la the pork donuts), we're going to a restaurant for our Thanksgiving meal.  Besides, even if I could find a frozen turkey, between my culinary skills and challenging oven would probably mean that we'd eat out anyway.

Our Mandarin tutor told us that the reason there are virtually no turkeys (and that they don't eat turkey) here is that Chinese farmers are scared to raise them.  She said that turkeys are big, mean birds and peck and bite people, so they don't want to raise them.  I guess that makes some sense, pigs wallow in their own filth and mud, but they don't have beaks.

We're going to a restaurant called Southern Belle, a true southern-style restaurant owned by a guy from Boston.  Not sure where this Beantown native got the idea to open a southern restaurant in Shanghai, but I'm sure Paula Deen would be proud. 

I did keep one tradition that I've had for the last 7 or 8 years, which was to run 5 miles on Thanksgiving morning.  Usually, I run the Fast Freddy Five Mile Foot Feast with Jennifer and Anne on T-giving day, but I ran it on the treadmill this morning and pictured the familiar sites of New Albany as I hoofed along, instead of watching Amazing Race Asia on the TV

Tomorrow, we're heading to Xi'an in Western China.  It's where the Terracotta Warriors are, now considered the eighth wonder of the world.  It's also one of the former capitals of China.  Hope to have some good stories and photos to post on Sunday.  I'm excited because Nick has always wanted to go see this magnificent sight, even before we moved here, so it's a perfect thing to do for his birthday (on Monday).

Just a few words of thanks:
I am grateful for my amazing family
For my supportive friends, old and new
For being able to meet sweet Nate (and hopefully next Thanksgiving I will be grateful for being able to bring him home)
For Nick, for keeping me sane through trying times, being my rock, and making me laugh, and for giving me the gift of this grand adventure that we're on
And, hopefully in a few hours, I will be thankful for turkey, cranberries, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie, though I know it won't hold a candle to my mom's or grandmother's T-giving meals in years past or B's T-giving creation this year.

Home in 10 days!

Our dinner was quite delicious.  We were joined by one of Nick's American colleagues who just arrived in China on Monday.

Monday, November 23, 2009

A little local flavor

Another fun few days in Shanghai.  It rained a lot last week, but was quite nice on Sat and Sun, so we walked around alot - you can get such a great flavor for the local culture and everyday life by walking around a city. 

And, you see things that you don't expect. 

Nick and I were walking down a busy pedestrian mall where every ten steps someone would come up to us and say "nice watch, handbags" and show us a brochure with counterfeit Rolexes and Gucci bags.  Our Mandarin lessons are coming in handy because by saying "boo yeo" (boo yeow), which means "don't want", we were able to fend them off a bit.  Then we saw something that we thought was just a Shanghai urban legend, a Dunkin Donuts. 

We love their coffee and I am certain that had DD not been five blocks from our house when we lived in Atlanta, Nick may have not made it through grad school.

So, after lunch we decided to have a little treat and get some of that delicious coffee.  We were so excited for a little taste of home.  While we waited, we took a look at the donut selection just for fun, and saw a selection that just didn't seem real.

Yes, that says "dry pork and seaweed donut"  I haven't seen that option in Indy.

Not what I'd pick, I'm more of a cinnamon twist or bavarian cream kinda gal, but to each his own.  After getting the thought of pork and seaweed out of our minds, our mouths started watering as we were handed our creamy and sweet java.  It was really hot, but we couldn't stand it and were eager for that first delicious sip.  And then, yuck!  Truly, it was the worst coffee we'd ever had.  A second sip confirmed it, and we promptly pitched the nearly full cups into the nearest trash can, just before being accosted by yet another guys trying to sell us a Rolex.

Then, we saw another pseudo-familiar face:

We think this is the Chinese version of Wendy's.

Yesterday, we walked around our neighborhood a bit more.  Because it was such a nice and sunny day, everyone had their laundry out drying (before you complain about your electric bill next month, remember that most of the world pays 4-5x what we do and that it's often too expensive, even for people who make a decent living to dry their clothes in a dryer).  Apparently, it was also a good day to hang your dinner out to dry, too.

It's a little hard to see, but going from the right to left: a pair of pants, a vest, a jacket, a small blanket, a larger blanket and a gutted fish.

Just another day in China.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Chinese food

Eating here hasn't been as big of a challenge as I thought it would be, though cooking has had its ups and downs.  The good thing/bad thing is that we have a couple of great restaurants in our complex that serve great sandwiches and salads, so we tend to lean on them a little too much some times. 

However, I decided that I was going to try an experiment - we were going to go a full week without going out to eat, which meant that I was going to be cooking, a lot.  In our 12 years of marriage, I don't think there has been a seven-day stretch when I have cooked dinner every day.  I'm not exactly the Julia Child or Rachel Ray type, especially when I can't make some of my staple meals because they don't sell frozen spinach and Prego here.

Le me start out my saying that our kitchen appliances are not American friendly.  Or, perhaps, it's that they're not non-chef friendly.  There are six settings on the oven, so I have to consult the user's guide every time I cook something, and for some reason, it recommends the same setting no matter if I'm cooking french fries, croissants or chicken.  And, our stove top takes forever to heat up, especially when I forget to flip the switch that turns on the electricity to the stove.

So far, I have baked chicken kabobs until they were so dry they were almost indistinguishible, and burnt a $6 box of brownies (remember, groceries here especially fancy imported American goods like Betty Crocker brownies, Cheerios and Tostitos are pretty expensive), but we managed to salvage the middle.  However, I can still make a mean grilled cheese.

And there are several groceries that I still don't know how to cook because I can't read the directions on them.  So, we will wait until we have our next Mandarin lesson and I'll ask our tutor what it says.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Ni Hao

Before we moved to China, Nick and I knew two words in Chinese, "Ni hao" which means "hello", and "shi shi" which means "thank you" or so we thought.  Depending on how you say "shi shi", it actually means "crumbs", so here we are, the brilliant Americans, roaming all around Shanghai telling people "crumbs" for holding the door or bringing us our meal at a restaurant.  No wonder the waiter was looking at the table closely, he may have thought the table was dirty.

I bought a great Chinese phrase book before I left the States, only I forgot that I had it until my darling nephew reminded me of it two weeks ago via Oovoo.  Because I've been frustrated by the lack of being able to communicate with non-English speakers, I started studying. 

I learned about five or six key phrases - like "Hello", "Good morning",  "How much?" "expensive", "don't want", "don't understand", etc.  The problem is that I tried some of these phrases out on Monday and I was responded to in Chinese, which didn't help me much at all.

We started language lessons last night, and it is going to be tough.  I studied Japanese in college and Chinese makes that seem easy, at least, so far.  Our tutor spent two hours drilling us just with pronunciations of Chinese sounds, some of them are pretty tough.  Worse than trying to roll an "R" in French. 

I'm also worried about losing my three weeks of progress when I return to the states for six weeks.  So, don't be surprised if I say that I'm doing "Mama huhu" (OK) or "Ni hui jiang ying yu man?" (Do you speak English?).

Zai jian!


UGH!  The blasted internet has been intermittent for the past six days - what's a girl to do?   President Obama stayed at the hotel attached to our apartment complex earlier this week.  If anyone wants to know an easy way to shave some funds off the national deficit, I have the answer.  Don't have the president travel.  What a production!  Three days in advance of his visit, the Centre was teaming with advance personnel and security detail.  Sorry, but seeing the secret service hanging out at the California Pizza Kitchen, isn't exactly an intimidating scene for me.  The people with cars in the garage had to move them out, and they closed our fitness center for two days.  They even had airport screening devices at the entrance to the hotel.

Didn't see anyone famous, but it was kinda cool to see all the activity, though disappointing to see what a major financial production each and every visit must entail.

Last weekend also included visits to two uniquely China locales - The South Bund Fabric Market and Jing'An Temple.

The Fabric Market is unreal.  Stalls upon stalls of places to have custom-made clothing sewn to your specifications.  Luckily, I had some good intel from a woman who was here over the summer on a couple reputable tailors, so off we went.  You can get tailor-made suits for under US $100, dress shirts for around US$13, etc.  I was struck by one dress designer who made the cutest wool dresses, and within minutes we were taking the neckline off one dress, and pairing it with the sleeves and skirt of another.  We'll see how this masterpiece turns out.

Nick ordered a shirt as a test, and we will be back this weekend to get measured for suits, and who knows what else.  I did experience the benefit of letting shopkeepers know that you've been referred to them from someone who has used their service as well as telling them that you live in Shanghai - you will get a much better deal that way.  A bargain shoppers dream.

We also ventured over to the Jing'An Temple which is just a few blocks from our house.  Unfortunately, they didn't have any brochures written about it in English, and we've been too lazy to look up info about it on-line, but it's a gorgeous 200-year old temple right in the heart of downtown Shanghai.  Such an interesting juxtaposition between the old Shanghai (and 200 years is actually new for a country thousands of years old) and the new modern city.

We're not sure why, but they were burning red bags and boxes filled with neatly folded silver paper.  Gotta research that.

And, the photo of the week:

I didn't realize that gruel was delicious, but it is at Deliciousgruel.  This place will not be making the Nick and Lu List of Places to Eat

Monday morning I ventured out to Old Town Shanghai and the Yuyuan Bazaar - a bit more of shopping heaven.  Picked up several Xmas gifts, so I won't disclose any items here, but fun - and I got a bunch of rainy day deals.  It was pouring and I was generally the only person in a shop, which was good for the deals, but bad for all the attention spent on me.  If I picked up something, I was immediately told, "Oh, I give you best price, cheap price, raining today."  And, then unless I said "bo yeo" which means "don't want" at least ten times, they would continue to reduce the price, and beg for a sale.  And you thought AmWay was pushy!  They should hire these shopkeepers.

Starbucks will be on the moon soon.  Here is a gorgeous old building with a Starbucks in it.  There was also a Dairy Queen just to the left of the SB.

Friday, November 13, 2009

I survived Walmart China!

Desperate times call for desperate measures.  Not being able to find liquid soap, a collander (this a necessity, we eat a lot of pasta), and scissors for the past two weeks drove me to go in search of Walmart.  There are three in Shanghai and one isn't too far away (distance is relative in a city of 16 million - anything under 30 minues is considered close).  And, so I went.

We drove to an area that I hadn't been to before, and as I looked at all the buildings, I swore I saw a Target.  There was a building with the telltale red circle and dot, but alas, it was only a mirage, not a Target.

My first problem is that I really had to go to the bathroom as soon as I got there, but I couldn't find a restroom.  I decided to embark upon the American commercial mecca with yellow eyes anyway.  It was three levels and the first level I found some of the normal things that are at the other grocery we've been to, plus some live turtles (not for pets) and frozen eels.  I passed on those. 

I was lucky to find some of my once-elusive items, but not others.  Guess who's suitcase will be filled with lots of food imports when I come back from the States in January?  Pickle relish, balsamic vinegar and Triscuits for sure!

I noticed a lot of stares, which I don't think was a result of me walking around with my knees locked together, rather, it was because I was the only Westerner in the store.  I could just imagine what the Chinese shoppers must be thinking, "Hmmm...she just can't get enough of capitalism."

I've been to some of the open markets, and I'm just not brave enough to try some of that food yet. Indistinguishable meat laying out without refrigeration and flies buzzing around doesn't really appeal to me.

After visiting all three levels, and getting as much I could without bursting, I checked out and made a bee-line to the W.C., only to find that there were no toilets, and I had to go in a glorified hole in the ground.  Having seen those since Japan circa 1993.  Oh well, when you gotta go...

Sorry for all the potty talk.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

I'm a believer

Today, I went to a presentation by an expert in traditional Chinese medicine, a guy from the U.S., no less, but incredibly knowledgeable and accomplished.  I wanted him to tell me a simple tea for making me more beautiful and to help me lose weight, but it's not as easy as that. 

What was supposed to be a 90-minute session turned into 3 hours.  He gave us several teas to try and listened as most of the women in the group divulged the very personal medical problems that their husbands have, most involving the gastrointestinal system.  Suffice it to say, that I learned more about a few men that I've never met than I really wanted to. 

Depending on the ailment and the balance of your yin and yang, he can cure just about anything through the use of herbs, teas and acupuncture.  I also learned about cupping, where glass jars are heated and then put on a sore spot and the suction that happens once the air in the cup cools is a marvelous muscle relaxer.  That's something I want to try soon.

The bottom line - ditch the coffee and start drinking tea -- red tea in the winter to keep you warm and green tea in the summer to keep you cool.

Sign me up!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Speaking Japanese

I've spoken more Japanese since I arrived in China, than I have in a long time.  The Japanese make up the largest group of expats in Shanghai, nearly 20 percent of the 150,000 who are here.  And, several live in our apartment complex.  I spoke to a women and her son in the elevator last week, and to two men at the grocery today.

Hopefully, I will start language lessons later this week so that I can thoroughly confuse two Asian languages. 

Antique Nirvana and Photo of the Week

Another good weekend of exploring.  We hit a really neat district that had some great jewelry shops and some other fun stores.  Actually, Nick and I are just enjoying walking around to get a good feel for the culture and people watching.  I wish I could video or photograph almost everything I see because it's such a rich, rich attack on your senses.  We haven't really visited any of the big tourist attractions yet, but we'll get there.  We need to pace ourselves a bit, but there is a lot that I want to do before I leave in early December.

I forgot to post something about my medical exam last Monday.  It was fine, just odd - and my escort/translator didn't speak English very well at all, so I'm wondering how she got that job.  We drove out to the Immigration Medical Center and were ushered into a room.  We had to sit down at a table with a fish tank in the center with some incredibly sickly and creepy fish in them.  I thought, "Great, this is the place where they are going to poke and prod me and they can't even manage to keep their fish healthy."  My escort proceeded to fill out my entire medical form, including checking "no" off each medical condition without asking.  For all she knew, I had gout, sleeping sickness and malaria, but she checked "no" anyway.  When she handed it too me, I had to go back through and write down my infertility surgeries and cross out where she put "no" under surgeries.  Awkward. 

To make matters even more interesting, the gentleman to my left was Nick's new general manager for China - a very charming Frenchman, so he got to hear about my fertility stuff.  Lovely.  I guess it was a good bonding experience, though.

I stripped down to my pants and a bathroom and was sent to seven different rooms where some kind of test was performed - blood work, chest X-ray, ultrasound (where I tried very hard to explain to the technician that I only had one kidney.  I really didn't relish the thought of her only finding one and then quickly sending me to a hospital where I'd never be heard from again.  Luckily, I think she understood), general exam, eye test,  ENT check up, heart test, height and weight.  There were probably twenty different people (men and women, Canadians, French, Indonesian, etc.) who had to wait in a hallway until a room was available.  We were all shuffled around and it was one of the most efficient operations I've ever seen.  I was in and out in less than an hour, and apparently passed my exam because I got my medical certificate and go tomorrow for my interview, the last step to getting my special resident visa (one where I can travel back and forth among countries). 

Today, I had a really, really fun experience thanks to our apartment complex.  They schedule special activities a few times a month and today's was visiting an antique restoration business.  They walked us through each step of the restoration process and helped us understand Chinese/Tibetan antiques better.  My mom, aunt B and Becky would've been in heaven with me. I have an affinity for Asian decor, so it truly was amazing.  Then, they drove us to their store and I almost bankrupted our savings (just kidding, but I could've).  So, I will take Nick out there at some point and we'll pick out a neat piece or two or three hundred. 

The Chinese version of the junk room, only you can't buy these pieces!

They do not use power tools in the renovations, and the carpenters make their tools by hand.  Instead of a jigsaw, this carpenter made a hand saw out of a piece of bamboo and a string of wire and delicately cuts out an intricate little decorative piece.

If anyone has ever heard me say that I'd like to import antique Chinese artwork and furniture - this is why!  Loved it.  Wonder how I can work on that goal while I'm here.  Not sure that Indy has the market for it, though.

thousands of square feet of antiques for sale!

Photo of the Week

I guess there's no bugle playing in this roundabout!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Funny observations on Shanghai thus far

I am really loving this city so far.  I hope that it's not some kind of weird defense mechanism arising from the unusual stress that I was under last week.

I wanted to post a few things that I've found amusing so far:
  • We cannot find a digital, plug-in alarm clock anywhere  - searched high and low, and asked, pantomimed and pleaded with sales people for some help.  Best Buy doesn't have them.  Really?  Back to using our cell phones to wake us up.
  • Apparently, there are no dryer sheets in China.  I thought it was just a matter of me not knowing where to find them at the grocery or mistaking a box of them for Triscuits or something (because sometimes there is no indication on the box of what you're buying at all).  I had lunch with a woman who's been here almost two years and she confirmed it, so they will be imported (as I am also doing the liquid fabric softener incorrectly in the washer).
  • The apartment lobby has been playing "The Little Drummer Boy" by Kenny G for the last two days - I have no idea why.  Xmas is not celebrated here, and it's even early by the US standards to play it.
  • Someone thought I was French yesterday.  I was walking down the street and saw a guy selling DVDs out of a suitcase, legit, I'm sure.  I stopped to see if he had any of the latest episodes of The Office or Mad Men, but instead he kept showing me French titles.  I just shrugged and said, "Non, merci."
  • I paid $4 for a box of Duncan Hines brownies, that I'm pretty sure are about $1.79 in the States (and I have to make them myself.)  Of course, we have no baking pan to put them in or Pam, but at least they're in my pantry.
More exploring this weekend!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Rewind to Vietnam

There were many, many sights, sounds and smells beyond the confines of the orphanage; and the transportation experience alone was enough to curl my stick-straight hair.

Ca Mau, the province we flew into and where our hotel was, is the southernmost province in Vietnam - and you can tell when you step off the plane.  The heat and humidity is oppressive, even at the end of October.  Luckily, our hotel had fantastic air conditioning units, and with my handy business card, I was able to keep it on even when we were out (in Europe and Asia, you have to put the room card in a slot in order for the electricity to function).

We melted as soon as we'd enter the Centre rooms.  They didn't use their air conditioning units much at all.  They usually felt sorry for us and turned it on, but they didn't work too well.  The babies weren't phased at all by the heat.  It was hard not to feel terrible for them, but's all they've known and they weren't sweating at all.  Some of the nannies would even put on long sleeves, and we saw several people riding their bikes in sweaters in the 100 degree heat. Meanwhile, the other two moms and I would typically shower at least twice a day.

Getting from Ca Mau was quite an experience, too.  Not for the faint-hearted flyer, for sure.  Remember the scene in Indiana Jones where he flies to the Middle East in a 1940's prop plane?  I'm pretty sure that I was on the same plane from the same era, and not unlike Indy, we landed in the middle of a rice patty  - on a single, short airstrip. I honestly don't think the landing strip was more than 500 feet. Breathe, mom.  And, it was by far the smallest airport I've ever been in.  There wasn't even a baggage claim area.  They loaded the baggage into a truck, drove it 100 feet and then unloaded it on the floor in a free-for-all.

Riding in a taxi was actually more harrowing than the flight.  No seat belts, riding at 45-50 mph, passing everything in sight, honking the whole time.  We had an hour round-trip drive every day to Bac Lieu.  As one of the moms I was with said, "the painted lines are just decorations."  In Cau Mau, the only cars on the road are taxis.  The rest are motorbikes, and most of them have at least two people riding them at one time.  I even saw families of four on the same bike.   Children standing on seats with no helmets, it made me cringe ever time I'd see one.

It's no exaggeration to say that I felt like I was in the middle of a National Geographic photo shoot every day.  The poverty in Ca Mau and the entire ride to the orphanage in Bac Lieu is severe.  People live in huts and shanties; hammocks serve as beds; dirt floors.  We saw people propelling their boats by using a long stick, and everyone wore the traditional woven hats to keep the hot sun off their heads.  The main industries in the southern provinces are shrimp and fish farming. 

This "house" is literally on the other side of the wall from the hotel.

"Downtown" Ca Mau City

Across the street from the hotel

A scene to the east of the hotel from the roof patio

I met an Australian who was staying at the hotel and was in town because he is a food inspector.  He said that the shrimp and fish were safe to eat (good to know - I ate a lot of shrimp), but that I shouldn't touch the honey.

 A traditional Vietnamese hot pot - delicious!

One night one of the wonderful hotel staffers took us to a market along the river.