Monday, January 28, 2008

Identity, Supremacy, Ultimatum

Have you seen any of the Jason Bourne movies? I prepared myself as best I could for the culture shock that was China, but I must admit that I was not quite ready for the quality of the Bourne trilogy. The films are outstanding, even more so when you view them as non-fiction documentaries like I do. The guy is flat-out impressive.

In one instance, he purposely triggers airport security to question him, and then during the interrogation, knocks out a customs official and an FBI agent while still having the presence of mind and intelligence to track a phone call that leads him to the people that are chasing him down. He speaks fluent German and almost-fluent Russian, amid a myriad of other languages.

From what I can tell, his one weakness is that his Russian must have a tinge of an American accent as some of the locals know he’s from America by the way he speaks. Other than that, from what I can tell, he’s on top of his game and would probably give Chuck Norris a good fight.

So while walking the streets, be sure to keep an eye out for Jason. And if you see him, run the other way or prepare for chaos and violence to ensue on a scale like you’ve never seen before.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008


Our Mandarin teacher is a sweetheart. She is very kind and shows genuine concern for our communication skills and the effect they have on our well-being. By this, I mean she looks out for us with textbook material as well as everyday, spoken language. But lately, she’s taken up language boxing lessons and I’ve become the Chinese punching bag - staunch and lumpy, tough to make an impression under my skin. That things panned out this way are not a mistake; in fact, it was expected for two reasons:

1. This is my first time seriously studying a foreign language with the goal of eventually using it one day. The other students can bust out anywhere from two to six languages apiece, ranging from Spanish to Russian. Yours truly has difficulty ordering “water” in the Midwest.

2. In South Philly, sardonic humor is considered an art form. I grew up with it and (to some extent) it’s engrained in my personality, if not my blood. And while it’s cool that our class is mostly void of dry, biting humor, I can’t help myself sometimes. So, I try to liven things up by grading my tests before handing them in, telling the teacher I don’t like her and want a new instructor (via my inchoate Chinese skills), trying to steal the answer key to our homework, and convincing her that this bottle (with Absolut written on it) I brought to the Christmas Eve party is, in fact, water and she should pour more in her cup.

We jab back and forth and it keeps the room’s mood light, interesting. Today, she taught us the word “danshi,” which means “but.” And it was in this lesson that she displayed her most impressive sparring skills. She opened the lesson with “Greta studies seriously, but Chris sleeps.” I’m proud of her. Then it was, “Marko scored well on the test, but Chris goes to the bar to drink beer.” Cute, but that’s enough. But, in closing, when the judges had already scored the cards in her favor, she came through with the following uppercut: “Marina speaks Chinese like she is from China, but Chris does not understand anything I say.” Of course, the fact that I understood 35% of what she just said partially proves her wrong, but I let her have the moment and admit: she used the jab, hook, and uppercut in effective fashion. And now I plot my comeback.

Sunday, January 13, 2008


I hear jackhammers distantly in the background as I drift off to that second layer of sleep that doesn’t easily arrive while construction progresses. It’s a viable metaphor for life in Shanghai these days. Before moving here, I heard that construction was a way of life. In fact, from what I can tell, it’s engrained in the culture.

Smells of sulfur, visions of smoke, breaths of fine dust, sights of newly refurbished streets and sidewalks residing alongside those being renovated – these are the palpable indications of a dynamic city in transition.

I wait for my moody heater to kick-on again so as to drown out the sound of the reformation being laid upon the highway behind our building. And I forgot to mention the time. It’s 12:38 a.m. and all is well and awake in the Eastern city that does not sleep, voluntarily or not.

Disheveled Supplements (from Nanjing)

I survive the duck supper information. The girls walk me to a taxi and tell the driver to take me to the train station. We wave good-bye and openly wonder about whether we’ll see each other again. I make it to the station in time for my departure. While walking down some stairs to my train, I take a picture of a freight train loudly and quickly rolling through the station.

On the ride home, I read the tourist materials I had collected throughout the day to determine exactly what I had seen (and missed). As it turns out, Zhongshan Mountain National Park is split into three main areas:

The Ming Tomb Scenic Area (where we started)
Linggu Scenic Area (spent the majority of the day here)
The Scenic Area of Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s Mausoleum (where we encountered the birds, finished our tour and the day morphed into night)

There is no mention of trainy but it does say that Zhongshan Mountain, located on the eastern outskirts of Nanjing, is also called “Purple Mountain” because purple clouds can often be found hovering over its peaks.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Shanghai Economics 101

One of the subtleties I appreciate most about the Chinese businesses is their thirst for giving round or exact change. If something costs 11 kuai or 26 kuai, they are looking for the extra one to make life (and dispensing change) easier for the both of us and are disappointed if you can’t produce it. And on that note – Before moving to China, I heard about how cheap everything is here.

And, well, it’s mostly true. Living in Shanghai can be cheap. Living in Shanghai like a westerner is expensive. And there are a few items that “fall in the middle” (cost what they would back home). For example, four of Yan’s Dumplings (delicious and there is a method to eating them) cost around fifty cents while a Clif Bar is $2. Furthermore,

$4.19 Grande Frappucino (Starbucks)

$3.38 Awful Pizza

$0.47 Dumplings (Awesome)

$9.47 Pizza Hut (personal pizza)

$6.77 American Breakfast (eggs, bacon, toast, hash)

$16.24 Entrance to Shanghai Aquarium

$0.88 Orange Juice - One liter

$0.20 Bottled water - 12 oz.

$0.54 Rice, Potatoes, Some sort of beef from corner vendor

$447 60 hours of Chinese classes (beginner)

$0.54 Breakfast Pastry

$1.35 Noodles and Beef

$1,110 Base monthly salary, English teacher

$0.41 Public Transit, short trip

$0.68 Public Transit, longer trip

$2.71 2-mile cab ride

$13.53 Rip-off watch from street vendor

$10.83 Entrance into Ming Xiao Ling (in Nanjing)

$1.62 Kung Pao Chicken

$8.50 Ten pack of Quaker Breakfast Bars

$3.52 10 eggs (western supermarket)

$11.91 Sliced Bacon (western supermarket)

$5.14 Bag of Tortilla Chips (western supermarket)

Friday, January 11, 2008

More Christmas Pics

Walk On

“Hello, Massage, Watch, Handbag!” – I can’t walk anywhere on Nanjing Road (near People’s Square) without hearing these words from multiple street vendors while they show me a placard with assorted goods displayed on it. It seems like they try to size you up from the start - first they assume you’re straight and single (massage, pretty girl), then they’re not sure but they are still sure they want your money (watch); then, they figure you’re married (handbag). The most effective way to get them to leave you alone is to keep walking and nod your head “no.”

When I first got here, I was polite. I made some eye-contact with the hustlers, smiled and said, “No, thanks, I’m not interested.” But I quickly learned that this is the equivalent of saying, “I’ll take three Timex watches, a ‘Gucci’ handbag, and why not throw in a massage for the heck of it.” Anything more than complete ignoration (my word) gets the blood up and they can taste a sale. So, just keep walking.