A Travellerspoint blog

Cultural / Language Exchange

Connecting with Ryan

After a week here and frustrated with my inability to make much progress with the language, I put new energy into finding a local Chinese person with which to do a language exchange. Soon I stumbled across a website (www.expats.com) that allowed free classified postings. There were several language exchange requests posted from all over the world (many in Dubai). I gave it a shot and by Sunday night I had been emailed by a young Chinese mechanical engineer, who uses the English name Ryan, on summer holiday and looking to improve his English.

Ryan is 21 and in his last year of university. He lives with his mom and grandmother on the Puxi side of town, just north of the East China University of Politics and Law (ECUPL) where Stacy has classes. Though he is an only child he has a few cousins close by who he refers to as sisters. Dad hasn’t been in the picture for a while. Fortunately for me Ryan has been studying English for nearly 10-years and was more than able to negotiate a time and place to meet in English. Through a series of cell phone text messages we were able to connect on the ECUPL campus early Monday morning.

We met up three times last week for a few hours each time in the afternoon. While I got some much needed language practice, my interest in learning more about the culture and politics of China and Shanghai tended to trump my language practice. When my brain tired of trying to hear and repeat the different tones, I fell back to English and explored the details of Chinese life through his eyes.

Often we were joined by Stacy or one of her classmates on break (or skipping class to avoid an uninteresting lecture). We hit on topics like food, health care, news coverage, standard of living, minimum wage, pollution of waterways, using roundabouts instead of signalized intersections, credit cards, saving money, houses vs. apartments, pirated software, earthquakes, the apparent rudeness of Chinese people, and frequently his dissatisfaction with life in Shanghai / China.

Like many people in their early 20’s in both China and the US, Ryan is disillusioned with government and media. Coming of age in a world filled with hypocrisies and injustice is enough to make anyone wish for the greener grass that must exist outside.

Surely more equitable places to live than Shanghai exist, but the discouragement I sense in Ryan could be found anywhere in the world. As a future mechanical engineer, he will be better off than most. Still, the idea of joining the rat race and being stuck in a position in which he has little control over the political and economic systems in which he must subsist is understandably disheartening.

I am curious to see how our relationship develops over my remaining two weeks here in Shanghai. As time allows, I will explore some of the conversations mentioned above in future posts.

Posted by stacyacy 14:48 Archived in China Comments (0)

Quick Notes Before Class

I wanted to point out some pictures Joe posted of Zhongshan Park - the one I walk through to get to class. Actually - after looking again I guess they don't show up. I'll check on this...

Also, some of our favorite sayings/ mistranslations, etc:

When asked a question by a student, one professor asked if the student was Canadian. When the student said yes, the professor responded that he could not answer questions from Canadians. We finally figured out he could not understand the Canadian accent! After the next student asked a question, the professor responded, "This is a very good question... because I understand it."

One rather large foreigner kept getting approached by Chinese people asking his wife how many bowls of rice does he eat each day? The wife's favorite comment was: "His parents must own a rice factory. There's no other explanation." (Luckily the husband did not speak Mandarin.)

And my favorite ancient Chinese philosophy about marriage (at least for women who were not allowed to apply for divorce): "If you marry a chicken, you must follow a chicken forever."

After today I will be half done with my program!

Posted by stacyacy 17:14 Archived in China Comments (1)

Getting Around

take your turn

Getting across a town of ~15 million people is no small endeavor. While the number of cars and taxi’s in Shanghai are multiplying faster than anyone predicted, few people can afford to have their own. Getting a drivers license is expensive and difficult. Those who can afford it, mostly expats, hire a driver. Starting at 11 yuan ($1.50) for the first 3km, taxi’s are a relatively affordable for travelers and business folk. Four yuan ($0.60) will get you across town on the metro, but many places in town are not near a metro station.

Motor scooters are a popular choice for personal transportation. I am not sure if a license is required to drive a scooter or not. Bikes are common, as are suped up bikes with small electric motors. All three of the two wheeled options travel at relatively slow speeds, 5 to 15 miles per hour. Significantly slower are the oversized tricycles carrying everything from a dozen or more 5 gallon dinking water containers, to a couple recently slaughtered pigs.

More interesting than the types of transportation roaming the streets, is how pedestrians, cyclists and motorists interact. Descriptions vary from chaotic, to self-centered, to disorganized but practical. Lane lines, modern traffic signals and other traffic regulations are followed if convenient. Generally people stop at red lights. That is except if you are turning right, in which case a red light treated as a yield.

I am reluctant to use the word “yield” here for that suggests that there is a sense of right-of-way for some vehicles over others. Yield in China means that someone else got to a space first and you have to wait for him to proceed otherwise you will cause an accident. Everything is first come first serve – pedestrian, bike or car, if there is an opening you take it. The resulting flow of humanity through the streets can be harrowing. Taxis dart through crowds of pedestrians in the cross walk. Merging vehicles push adjacent cars half way into the next lane. Rarely used in anger, horns warn a forward vehicle or pedestrian not swerve in front as you are passing. The prevailing rule is to avoid hitting others. Beyond that anything goes.

Several people have described this mode of operation on the streets and in other parts of life as selfish and inconsiderate. There is some truth to that, though I think it has as much to do with population density as cultural norms. Swimming in such a large sea of people, I find myself adopting similar me-first behaviors. Just yesterday in the produce section of Carrefore (supermarket) I found myself jostling for position in the “line” to have my bananas weighed and priced. As others arriving to the station after me tried to vie for position, it was clear that I had to be assertive or I would lose my turn...even if that meant me outmaneuvering someone who was in “line” before me.

Posted by towangle 18:23 Archived in China Tagged transportation Comments (1)

All the Tea in China

View Asia Tour on towangle's travel map.

We set out this afternoon to visit the Urban Planning Museum. A taxi to the metro and 15 minutes later we were trying to figure out which of the 12 different exits from People’s Square station would get us closest to the museum. Exit number two looked like the best bet, but we couldn’t figure out where it was so we took number six instead. Emerging from the air conditioned station and into daylight and humidity we did the tourist turnabout that screams “where the hell am I”, guessed a direction and started off across the plaza.

A few steps later and we were hailed down in English by a young Chinese couple sitting in the shade. Getting attention as a foreigner is nothing new. Around our apartment we get smiles and a ni hao (hello). Out and about we are often followed with blank, unapologetic stares. Near the metro stations we are often approached to buy watches or other contraband being hawked in the local markets or by street vendors – though such instances less frequent than say Cusco, Peru where one might be trailed across the Plaza de Armas by a half dozen small children imploring you to buy their post cards.

But these two seemed different. For one, their English was much better than the average street vendor who learns the few phrases needed to make a sale, but ask him what time it is and you would be out of luck. They had clearly had many years of English and learned from native speakers. As with many Chinese studying English, they had taken on English names. Yesterday it was James (after LeBron James) and Elephant (I didn’t get a chance to ask about that one). Today it was Cathy and Stephen.

Both were chatty and interested in our activities and background. They claimed to be taking a break from sight seeing but on their way to a see a traditional tea ceremony near the square. That sounded more interesting to me than the museum so I was quick to accept their invitation to join them.

Cathy took Stacy under her sun umbrella exhorting us for not having one of our own to keep Stacy's skin white and beautiful. Stephen seemed to know more about NBA basketball than me. He knew all of Houston Rocket players (Yao Ming's teammates) and how Kobe will likely be traded from the Lakers. Supposedly in China, LeBron James is called the little emperor because he is small but powerful.

Shortly we arrived at the tea ceremony...or... restaurant. Like most Chinese restaurants there were a gaggle of servers near the entrance, but few patrons. We were guided to a small room with six chairs around three sides of a table. Stacy and I sat across from the hostess serving the tea. Cathy and Stephen sat on the end and translated for us. Six different teas were lined up in front of us in small glass jars. We sampled the first four.

The first was a ginseng tea. The dry tea leaves were wonderfully fragrant. The hostess brewed a small batch, filled five tiny cups – not much taller or wider than a quarter – and proceeded to empty the cups over a small frog like statue on the tray. The first batch of every tea sample was sacrificed to the tea god for luck. Upon closer inspection the tea god was not a frog but a three legged beast – two in the front and one protruding from the back like a tail – with a coin in its mouth and two rows of coins on its back. The second round was for us. Each of us had a small wooden tray on the table in front of us. Once the tea was poured the hostess used tongs to place a cup on each of our trays.

Together the five of us savored our first cup. We were given specific instructions on how to hold the cup. Thumb and index finger grip the cup, and the middle finger supports the bottom of the cup. Women straighten their ring finger and pinky in a display of elegance. Men clinch the same fingers in a partial fist as a show of strength. The tea is first smelled, like a glass of wine and then consumed in three sips.

The ginseng tea had a smooth full flavor with a subtle sweet aftertaste that lingered beneath the sides of my tongue. We were given a second cup before moving on to tea number two.

This time the tea was served with two cups. One similar to the first round and the other a taller and narrower version. The teas was first poured into the tall cup with the shorter cup placed on top. The hostess indicated that one represented heaven and the other earth. She turned heaven and earth upside down a few times and then placed the tea in front of us with the tall cup upside down in the short cup. We were then instructed to hold the empty tall cup up to our eyes and roll it along out temple. The tea warmed cup, among other things, is supposed to help alleviate wrinkles around the eyes.

The second tea, jasmine, had a more delicate flavor than the ginseng, but was equally delightful.

The third round was served in clear cups to showcase the rich color of a fruit infused tea. I did not catch the nature of the tea leaves used, but it appeared that there were small chunks of fruit amongst the leaves. No need to add sugar to this tea – it is a treat by itself.

Finally the hostess served us green tea. I must admit, green tea has never been my favorite. Once again, I was pleasantly surprised. While there was still the subtle bitterness that is distinctive of green teas, that aspect did not linger beyond the swallow. The gentle flavor made me look forward to the second cup and gave me new faith in the merit of green teas.

Not surprisingly, the tasting ceremony ended with an offer to purchase more the teas we had sampled. Stacy and I came away with two canisters, as did Cathy and Stephen. The bill was not pretty, but the experience felt the most authentically Chinese of any of my adventures so far.

Cathy and Stephen walked us back to People’s Square. They had been to the Urban Planning Museum earlier in the day and were not interested in a return trip. We swapped email addresses and I snapped a picture. Then we went our separate ways.

Posted by towangle 15:11 Archived in China Tagged tourist_sites Comments (4)

One Week Complete!

Hello everyone! I am excited to write today with four days of classes under my belt and excited to put off homework for a little longer :)

My commute has proven to be a great time to observe Shanghai. It is at least an hour but includes a 20 minute walk each way through the enchanting Zhongshan Park in the middle of Shanghai. It’s delicately manicured with a multitude of winding stone pathways under a canopy of cool palms. I’m not sure I’ve ever taken the same way through even though I always start from A and end up at B (nor sure I could if I tried).

Even though my first pass-through occurs at about 7 am, the park is crowded with people of all ages flying kites and exercising in many forms from badminton and tai chi to hacky-sack and dancing. Tai chi is a form of slow moving shadow boxing which seems to be done almost exclusively by those over 60. There are so many practitioners, I find myself winding my way in-between to get past. Everyone seems to know the value of movement.

The subway rides are still novel, too. Each stop sports about 8 entrances and the underground portion is at least two large city blocks long (Chicago blocks, not Portland blocks). Shops line the walkways, making a whole underground mall at each subway stop. It gives me something to look at while I walk –the pastries in particular are so beautiful Pix Patisserie in Portland could learn some things (sorry, Tom) ...but I’ve yet to try any to compare the content. Most desserts here contain red beans which I enjoy, but they’re not quite the Queen of Sheeba (a wonderful chocolate dessert from Pix). For coffee fans, there’s even a red bean frappucino.

Traffic - cars, bicycles and pedestrian - seems to have a philosophy rather than rules. Everyone seems to go where there is space to go and toot their horn to let you know they are there. The number of bikes on the road would put the critical mass movements in San Francisco or Portland to shame, though about half are motorized. The refreshing part is that no one seems to feel entitled to a right of way and therefore no one seems to get upset about anything like getting cut off, passed or bumped (pedestrian for the last one). I doubt road rage is a phrase here. The downside, for lack of a better word, is a statistic a professor noted - the reported 370,000 accidents and 89,000 traffic deaths in a recent year. Maybe the system is best suited for pedestrians.

The construction happening is amazing. Erin and Nick told us builders often work 2 – 12 hour shifts so you can literally see significant changes overnight. If you left for five years, you may not recognize the city when you return. I pass the construction of what rumors say will be the new world’s tallest building on my way to school and have already seen notable progress.

I still get frequent stares everywhere I go. They are hard to define – not threatening, nor flattering, nor even do they really seem curious. It seems perhaps a bit as if I’m an animal in a zoo and maybe an uninteresting one at that. This surprised me a lot in such a large metropolitan area but looking around Puxi there are not many Caucasians. Today I laughed because I realized I was surprised to still be getting stares – as if I expected the city to get used to me as I was getting used to it.

Classes are very interesting, though perhaps a bit more lecture than I would like (entirely, that is). I know I should count my blessings - I remember praying for lecture at times during the past year of Socratic method. The lectures are more interesting than most as we have different professors coming each day to discuss their expertises. Also the daily change in topics to differing aspects of Chinese Law helps shake things up. I already have a short exam Monday morning for part of my grade and then in the afternoon we will observe a trial. Joe will hopefully be able to tag along for the field trip.

That is about all for now... I hope everyone is well! Happy Birthday, Grandma!

Posted by stacyacy 08:04 Archived in China Comments (0)

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