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Goodbye Shanghai

July 29, 2011

It’s been a crazy year. It’s tough to say goodbye to a place that has become your home. Last day of work today. Said final goodbyes to close friends this evening. Had our last meals. Took our last cab ride home. Now it’s time to crash one more time in our apartment, before we take off early tomorrow morning for Malaysia for an island vacation in Langkawi.

Yes, you should be jealous.

Even though I’m exhausted, I felt the need to write this post to say farewell in some more permanent way. It doesn’t feel real to say goodbye yet. It feels like I”ll just come right back.

It doesn’t really feel like it’s over until months later, when it hits you: you have a new life now. New place, new friends, new possibilities. I”m so excited for the future, but I have no regrets about this amazing, topsy-turvy year in one of the world’s most dynamic cities. I’ll never forget Shanghai, or our little neighborhood in Xuhui. Never ever.

Life-changing experience. But…

…. I’m coming HOME!!!!!!! And I’m ready for the next chapter. So ready.

The Cosmos: It’s always about the people

July 25, 2011

Goodbyes are hard. As Rick and I prepare to leave Shanghai – our flight out of here is in five short days, the morning of Saturday July 30 – we have been saying goodbye to our favorite places, favorite foods, and favorite people. Of course, it’s the people that are the toughest to let go.

Rick and I have made some wonderful friends this year, primarily through Ricks’ soccer team, the Cosmos. I take full credit for this, as it was through my colleague Jon that we found the team.  I haven’t blogged about our adventures with the Cosmos, a serious omission as the people on the team have shaped our social lives here in Shanghai.

The soccer players, or as they call themselves “footballers,” on the Cosmos are mostly from the British commonwealth, with a smattering of Americans, Canadians, and other Europeans (one Greek, one Spaniard, and even one guy from Kazakhstan). Needless to say, their accents are all adorable.

Most of the Cosmos are in their late twenties, with the range being from 22 (Rick was the youngest player this year) to mid-50s. They are an extraordinarily good-humored group, very inclusive, and they just love to have a good time. The boys that have girlfriends usually bring them along, and the girlfriends are just as much part of the group as the boys (and can chug beer just as well, too).

The gang, which includes the players and their girlfriends, is led by the two lovable team managers, Jordan and Cartu. Jordan is a British redhead with a big ego who went to University with Prince William and Princess Kate Middleton– he actually co-hosted the royal wedding on Chinese national television, which was hilarious to watch.  Cartu is  a charismatic Canadian who always brings everyone into the fun and who loves to sing 90s hits very loudly when he’s drunk. Both men ironically work for alcohol companies, Bacardi and Duvel, respectively.

Together, the group of hooligans drinks so much that twice in our time with them, the restaurant ran out of beer. They can all drink like there’s no tomorrow, especially the Sean the Irishman.

I have always felt entirely welcome and fully included in all the social activities. These activities have ranged from an afternoon drinks at Jordan’s apartment to a five-hour long Indian buffet brunch, from an excursion to see a Chinese Polo match (yes, we did that) to the 2:30am showing of the World Cup at a sports bar (no, we did not do that, though Rick wanted to).

On Saturday, Rick had a going away gathering  a local bar, The Shed, that has agreed to sponsor the Cosmos next year. Two hours in, Cartu led a round of toasts to Rick (and me), and each member of the team said something kind about Rick, which was so touching and really quite sad. Then, Rick went around and said something about each of the guys.

When Rick was done, I added how grateful I was that the guys had always been so inclusive towards me, and I thanked them for making me feel like part of the team.

Later that night, Jon hosted a dinner for his birthday, where 25 of us ate an entire roast lamb! I said a few very sad goodbyes, especially when saying goodbye to Jon’s girlfriend Anna and Cartu’s girlfriend Marina, who had both been super nice to me. I never got to know them all that well, and I was very sad I wouldn’t get the chance. Rick and I were very quiet on the cab ride home, reflecting on our goodbyes.

It’s amazing how much being part of a social group can make a place feel like home. Who who know, who you spend time with, always shapes your experience of a place more than anything else. The Cosmos are largely to thank for making our year in Shanghai special. They were our community here, and was really hard to say goodbye. I could’t tell you half of their last names, but they really grew to feel like a family while we were here.

I’ll miss them very much, more than all my favorite restaurants combined.

“Ni jiu shi Dancing Queen”: the all-Chinese Mama Mia!

July 22, 2011

The post-curtain call rendition of "Dancing Queen" in the all-Chinese production of the West-End smash hit musical Mama Mia! It's the 14th non-English production of the show worldwide.

As soon as I found out about the all-Chinese Mama Mia! debuting at the Shanghai Grand Theater, I knew I had to go. I wouldn’t let anything get in the way: this was a historic event in musical theater history–Mama Mia! is the first western musical to be produced in Chinese– and damned if this theater geek wasn’t gonna be there!!! Also, after a year of being entirely starved of my favorite art form, both as an audience member and as a participant, I couldn’t resist the thought of an all-Chinese cast belting out ABBA’s classics in Mandarin while wearing silly costumes (see picture above).

I was just as eager to watch the audience as the action on stage. How would China receive a show like Mama Mia!? First of all, its success in the West was precipitated by the popularity of ABBA’s music ( for those of you who don’t know, the score is entirely made up of ABBA songs, lyrics unadulterated), but ABBA, so far as I know, has never been popular in China.

Second of all, the story and the characters are so very un-Chinese. The main characters are a girl, Sophie, who doesn’t know who her father is, and her mother, Donna, who also doesn’t know who the father is! Donna’s behavior is so very un-Chinese: sleeping around before marriage, with multiple men in the same few weeks, then having a child out of wedlock! How scandalous! The musical also has other un-Chinese moments, like an older woman having an affair with a young man (and flirting like crazy in public), and another older woman throwing herself at a man who doesn’t seem interested.

And third of all, China doesn’t have a musical theater culture. While there is traditional Peking Opera and other forms of theatrical performance in China’s history, there’s nothing like the Broadway/West-End musical to speak of.  Where would you find the actors to handle the material? And wouldn’t a lot of the humor be lost in translation? I had to find out!

With all my curiosity, I splurged for the tickets for me and Rick (about US$100 apiece for orchestra seats), armed myself with a video camera, and went to the show!

A Review of China’s Mama Mia!

I’ll keep this short, but the show all-in-all was fantastic! Much better than I expected!

The show was put up by the team behind the original West-End production, so in many aspects, the show was identical to its English counterpart: set, costumes, lighting design, and direction were all on par with the original musical – top notch professional stuff. No need to spend time elaborating on those aspects. Really I just want to talk about two things: the language, and the cast.

The language worked surprisingly well. According CNNgo, the translations were kept as close to the meanings of the original lyrics as possible, and the translators left iconic words in the songs: “Dancing Queen,” “Money, Money, Money,” and “Honey Honey” remained in English, while the rest of the song was in Chinese. All of ABBA’s songs sounded just as good in Chinese, and there was plenty of rhyming, so clearly these translators were pros.  It was really fun for me whenever I understood the Chinese lyrics, aided by my strong knowledge of the original lyrics.

They also left all the original character names unchanged. Some of these worked better than others. Donna and Sophie weren’t too awkward, but the names Sam Carmichael, Bill Anderson and Harry Bright (Sophie’s three potential fathers) were kind of hilarious when pronounced with a thick Chinese accent, and made me chuckle. (Also, those were the names of three Chinese men? Not very convincing!)

And the humor! They obviously altered a lot of the humor, and Rick and I certainly missed quite of few of the jokes that the audience loved. But on the whole, the humor worked really well, especially the physical humor. People even laughed at Donna’s scandalous predicament of not knowing her daughter’s father. It didn’t become tense or anything, as I worried it might because of the taboo, foreign behaviors of the characters.

The cast was also excellent on the whole, but the women really outshone the men. Tian Shui as Donna was INCREDIBLE, a seasoned stage actress and it showed. Her voice was absolutely gorgeous, everything she did seemed effortless,  and she was funny to boot. As good as any musical theater professional I’ve ever seen. Donna’s two best friends, played by two professional Chinese vocalists, were also excellent – perfectly cast, great singers and strong actresses. The actress portraying Sophie, Taiwanese newbie Zhang Fangyu, was also very strong, with a very pretty voice and a strong belt, but at times she was a bit pitchy. Still, overall, the women ROCKED, as they should because women own this show.

The men… well, they didn’t rock so much. As vocalists, the four lead males – Sophie’s three possible fathers and her fiancee Sky – were all lackluster. Their voices were all throaty and thin. A few times, I feared that the man who played Sam, who was miscast, wouldn’t hit the high notes in “Knowing Me, Knowing You.” And Sky was quite pitchy, I’ll leave it at that. But all the boys, to their credit, milked their laughs.

The ensemble was strong. Great energy all around, and they were all good dancers and held their harmonies. Granted, the dance in the show is not very difficult, but still, I was impressed with the highly professional performances from the ensemble, as the actors were mostly total newbies to the stage, fresh out of acting school or conservatory.

Overall, bravo bravo! The show deserved the standing ovation it got!

Dawning of a new era?

This could be the start of something beautiful. I was so pleasantly surprised when the entire audience got to its feet during the post-curtain call renditions of “Dancing Queen” and “Waterloo.” When I saw Mama Mia! years ago in San Francisco, the same thing happened, but that’s because everyone in the audience loved ABBA and was singing along. In Shanghai, all these songs were new to the audience, but they still got up and danced and clapped! Marvelous! Everyone was clearly having a great time, and the audience was young on the whole (20s-40s).

I think musical theater has a bright future in China. I hope more Western musicals are translated into Chinese, but I hope even more that the Chinese start churning out their own original musicals. Peking Opera needs a successor. China is chock-full of fantastic material for historical musicals, and many of the popular TV shows and miniseries could easily become modern musicals like Mama Mia, full of relationship drama, situational comedy, and hijinks. Also, the Chinese love Shakespeare: let’s get some musical adaptations in the works, people! The modern Chinese Kiss Me Kate is begging to get made!

But the real reason I have so much hope for the musical is that musical theater has a wonderful capacity to be both entertaining and politically harmless. Much more so than in non-musical theater, musicals are very rarely politically subversive, or political at all  (I can only think of a handful, like Cabaret and Miss Saigon). I think Hu Jintao would approve of Hello Dolly! or My Fair Lady, don’t you? Hell, he might even give the Chinese Eliza Doolittle a standing ovation one day!

You know you’ve been in China too long when…

July 15, 2011

I’ve lived in China for 13 months now, and I’m leaving in about two weeks. Crazy. It’s put me in a reflective mood about my time here, and I thought it would be fun to make my own version of the “You know you’ve been ____ too long when…”. I’ve seen other lists like this about China or Shanghai, very long ones, very amusing ones. Here’s my version, my top ten:

1. You compulsively push the close-door button in the elevator. I think this is the single most Chinese behavioral shift of mine. For some reason (I think it has to do with the low quality of the elevators), everyone here (I mean EVERYONE) compulsively presses the close-door button in the elevator. Even if they see more people trying to come in, most of the time, the person nearest the button reaches out and presses it, over and over. I now do this too. It’s compulsive, mindless, a rewiring of my brain. I have a feeling I’ll continue with this silly habit even when I’m home.

2. You can cross the street without fearing for you life. It took me about 2 months in Shanghai to learn to cross the street without almost dying. I had to retrain my instincts. You see, before, my body told me that when a motorcycle was heading straight for me, I should stop like a deer in headlights and maybe even jump backwards a bit. Now I know you just need to keep walking, and the mopeds, bicycles, cars and busses will just swerve around you. Also, I always always always look both ways before crossing the street, and continuously while crossing the street. Again, a rewiring of my brain to fit Shanghai.

3. You shout Chinese explatives — aiyoh! – instead of those from your homeland.  I no longer say “hey,” or “damn,” or “awww!” when I’m caught off guard or angry. Instead, I say, aiyoh! It’s instinct now. Also, instead of “um,” I say, “en” (prounounced “ungh” all back in your throat) or “neige” (pronounced nay-guh). Instead of “okay,” I say, “ok ok ok, haode.” I repeat things a lot more. Just how we jive here.

4. You cook everything in one pan: your wok. Most apartments in China don’t have ovens. Baked goods here are specialty items, treats that you buy at the store. Everything is cooked in the wok. My apartment has two burners, and though I own four pots and pans, I only use the wok. I scramble eggs in it. I braise pork belly in it. I make stir fries in it. I even boil things in it. I also only use one knife: my big cleaver. It can cut anything. That’s all I need.

5. News about food scandals no longer scares you. Exploding watermelons? No big. Cucmbers treated with birth control sex hormones? I doubt they’ll affect us. Milk tainted with industrial chemicals? Pork that glows in the dark? … I’ll take my chances. Don’t want to spring for Western food tonight when I can get a delicious dinner for 5 kuai from the street vendor! What-ever, these scandals won’t affect me! … You can’t live in constant fear.

6. You have friends from at least 10 different countries. I have made friends with Chinese, French, Italian, British, Irish, Spanish, Chilean, German, Russian, Korean, Japanese, Indian, Swedish, Danish, and American people since I moved here. And my best friend from HBA is from the Ivory Coast, so I count him too. I’m sure I missed some. Shanghai is so incredibly international.

7. You have formed alliances at the fabric market. Get enough visitors from home, and you’re bound to get to know some people at the fabric market. Rick and I are good friends with the people at Judy’s. Now that we’re nearing the end of our stay, we’ve returned every week for the last month to get things made for ourselves. Two tailored suits, skirt and pants, for $200? Score! And I’m getting a Chiense qipao dress made right now. Rick is a master bargainer and has impressed me – and the people at the fabric market –  countless times with his ferocity.

8. Hardly anything offends you anymore. Motorcyclists and drivers cutting you off; horns honking non-stop; strangers shoving you, yelling at you, and hawking lugis right next to your exposed feet; babies running around without any pants on, and doing their business on the sidewalk next to your apartment; people gawking at you because you’re a foreigner; people trying to cut you in line at the convenience store; waiters and cab drivers ignoring you; it never ends in Shanghai. And while these things once bothered me, infuriated me, frustrated me and grossed me out, they no longer chafe so much. In fact, I can ignore them most of the time. Nothing offends me anymore.

9. You can read a Chinese menu, without pictures. Other than a handful of famous dishes, they don’t teach you food words in Chinese class. They taught us to discuss political movements, like the “opening up and reform” China experienced under Deng Xiaoping (改革开放), but they didn’t teach you how to say “fried rice” (炒饭). You know you’ve lived in China too long when you can recognize almost every dish on a picture-less menu, even those that don’t indicate the ingredients in the dish, like “eight treasures rice” (八宝饭) and “big plate chicken” (大盘鸡).

10. You no longer get compliments on your Chinese. Unlike when I first arrived in China, I am no longer eager to improve my Mandarin. In fact, I’m rather tired of Mandarin and use my foreigner looks to pretend I can’t speak Chinese. I use English whenever possible, and I frequent expat joints far more often then when I arrived. It’s because I’m longing for home. This living abroad thing has lost a lot of its sparkle.

Two more weeks…

Beijing’s Summer Palace is just like Disneyland

June 27, 2011

The lake in the middle of Beijing's Summer Palace, designed to look like Hangzhou's picturesque West Lake. You can ride several boats on it.

I just got back from a wonderful trip to Beijing with Rick, his dad, and his little brother, who are vising China for the first time. We saw all the big sights: the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Temple of Heaven, the Summer Palace, and, of course the Great Wall. Rick and my dear friend Phillip, who lives in Beijing and loves the city, was the perfect tour guide and trip organizer.  The weather was perfect, the food was delicious, and our legs and feet are still sore.

Q: What does this Summer Palace souvenier headpiece strongly resemble? (A: Mickey Mouse ears)

But now I want to talk about how the Summer Palace is actually just like Disneyland. This was my first time visiting the Summer Palace, and while the parallels between Chinese tourist sites and America’s theme parks have struck me before, never before have the similarities been so striking that I was inspired to write a blog post about it. But the longer I spent wandering around the national treasure and learning about it, the more the comparison clicked.

The most obvious parallel is how the two parks function today. The Summer Palace and Disneyland are both extremely popular tourist sites, always very crowded. You buy tickets to get admitted. It’s a designed space that transports you to a different world. There is plenty of foliage, and plenty of clean restrooms. Vendors and little shops abound in both locations, selling you low-quality food, hats, toys, and decorative trinkets at exorbitant prices. It’s a fun-packed day for the whole family. There is plenty to see and do; both the Summer Palace and Disneyland offer boat rides to guests. Each park makes billions of dollars in revenue each year by selling you silly hats, among other things.

But the really interesting parallels emerge when you look a little deeper, and look at what separates the Summer Palace from other Chinese historical tourist sites. Let’s look at the history.

The Summer Palace was built as a summer getaway resort for the Qianlong Emperor of the Qing Dynasty in 1750. It was then called the Garden of Clear Ripples. You see, Beijing gets extremely hot in the summertime. The treeless Forbidden City must have been blistering, swelteringly miserable in the days before air conditioning, as it lacked the shade, the water, and the breezes of nature. The Summer Palace was envisioned as a nature-filled paradise for the emperor and his family. In fact, Qianlong built the place for his mother’s 60th birthday, a getaway for them to enjoy together. Aww.

Walt Disney, similarly, conceived of Disneyland because of something lacking for his family. Attractions and entertainment was designed either for children, or for adults. Disney envisioned an amusement park where parents and children could play together, a safe and enclosed space full of fantasy, guarded from reality. He says he built the park in for his two daughters, so they would have a place to enjoy together. Aww.

The Summer Palace, and Disneyland have this in common: each was the dream of one powerful man who wanted to build a fun place, a retreat, for his family. And both of these powerful men–the Qianlong Emperor and Walt Disney–were just rich enough and driven enough to pull it off.

Then there’s the fact that both places are carefully designed, as destinations meant to look and feel like other places and other times.

The Summer Palace is an intricately designed space, meant to evoke the scenes of other places and other times. The grand lake in the middle, on which boats chug along, is man-made, dug out in five years, and meant to look like the gorgeous West Lake of Hangzhou, the city that Marco Polo once called the most beautiful in the world. A fake mountain was built from dirt dug out of the ground to make the lake. The Palace itself is an ancient Chinese castle. At the Summer Palace, the emperor and his family could feel like they were travelling around the world, or to a different time.

Disneyland's River's of America, designed to look like the Mississippi river. You can ride several boats on it.

Walt Disney filled his park with three fake water bodies: a river designed to look like the Missisippi, representing the grandeur of Frontier America; a river designed to look like an African jungle; and a lake to look like a planned fixture of the cities of the future. He also built a fake mountain: the Matterhorn, a centerpiece of the park, designed to look like the mountain of the same name in Switzerland. The centerpiece was a castle, made to look like a medieval European castle. At the Disneyland, the Walt Disney’s daughters and all the park’s guests could feel like they were travelling around the world, or to different times.

Suzhou Street at the Summer Palace

The Qianlong emperor also added an entire fake shopping street to the entrance of the Summer Palace, designed to look like the shops of the river town of Suzhou, famous for its silk, and also considered to be one of China’s most beautiful cities. You could take a ride on a little river boat to get from from one end to another. It was shopping idealized, transported from another place and frozen in time.

Disneyland's Main Street, USA

Every Disney park features a Main Street USA, a shopping street designed to look and feel like a Main Street of a small US town at the turn of the 20th century. Little shops with Disney products surround you. You can go on a ride in a horse-drawn carriage to get from one end to another. You can even take a steam train, just like those from the turn of the century. It is shopping Disneyfied, transported from another place and frozen in time.

At the end of the day, both the Summer Palace and Disneyland are designed spaces, the realized dreams of powerful individuals, closed off completely from the real world, intended to provide a fun family getaway. They are full of features designed to look like other places and other times, but feel real. They both hold castles, mountains, and lakes, and idealized shopping streets within their walls. It’s striking how much they are alike.

The one major difference that I’ve avoided this entire time? Disneyland was built with private funds for the enjoyment of the public. The Summer Palace was built with public funds for the enjoyment of the emperor and his family, no one else. Before the Boxer Rebellion, the Empress Dowager, Cixi, redirected public funds to rebuild the navy toward expanding the Summer Palace for herself, infuriating the people.  It was a big deal when the resort was finally opened to the masses to explore, more than 250 years after it was built.

Even though they’re building a Shanghai Disneyland resort, the Summer Palace will always be China’s original theme park, a reflection of the nation’s history and people. And tendency to buy silly hats.

Homeward bound: Austin, Texas

June 14, 2011

As I finally told my boss, I figured it was okay to publicly announce that I’m heading back to the United States in early August! I’ll continue at my current job until the end of July, travel a bit, and then head home. For good. After a month or so at home in the Bay Area, I’ll be heading to Austin, Texas, where Rick and I will make our new home. I’m really excited about the move! The reason, in short, is that we really want to come home. We miss America. I think that’s all the justification we need.

When I tell people of our plans, I often get the questions, “Won’t you miss Shanghai?” or “Are you sad to be leaving so soon?”

My answer to the first question is, yes, of course I’ll miss it – the way you miss any place you have made your home, no matter how much it may drive you crazy. I’ve spent a year of my life in China, most of that in Shanghai, and parts of the new life I’ve formed here I’ll miss a lot. I’ll miss the friends I’ve made here. I’ll miss my neighborhood in the Xuhui district, where I can get fried chicken at not one but two very conveniently located outlets, and I’m surrounded by great and affordable restaurants. I’ll miss the durian and other exotic fruits unique to Asia, as well as the shopkeepers who know me by sight and smile whenever I stop by. I’ll miss the constant exposure to a culture so different from my own. I’ll miss feeling like I’m living in the city that the eyes of the world are fixated upon, as China’s rise continues to fascinate and befuddle the world.

The answer to the second question – am I sad to be leaving so soon – is no. A year is long time. The nuance of this city has sunk into my mind. I’ve observed, absorbed, and experienced to my heart’s content. I’m ready to come home, to the U.S. of A, where I can access YouTube and afford fancy cheeses. Where everybody speaks English. Where I can act in community theater again. Where I know the watermelons I buy won’t explode. Where I won’t need to worry about a visa. Where I can call my family during normal hours of the day. Where I can visit home, or visit my sister at school, or go to the Harvard Yale game without spending an entire  month’s salary.

Also, I’m not sad to be leaving because I have a feeling Rick and I will end up back here one day – China, at least, if not Shanghai. This is the end of one chapter of our lives, but the book is far from over. With Rick’s fantastic Mandarin skills, and my functional Mandarin, we are prime candidates for a firm doing business in China to send abroad; and just about every firm in the US that sells anything is hoping to make its way to China, where growth prospects are some of the best in the world. I have one friend in Shanghai who is trying to move home and looking for a job, but every company he hears from wants to send him to China to run their operations here.

I don’t know when or why, but I’ve got a feeling we’ll be back. At the same time, unless there are huge changes in China’s government, we would never make China our permanent home. As the laws currently stand, we could never be citizens here, nor could our Children. With no Chinese blood in our families, we will forever be branded outsiders here, in some way or other. Which is fine, because we can always come home.

And we are coming home! Home again, home again – I’m counting down the days!

Confessions of a durian addict

June 11, 2011

Oh durian, King of Fruits, how I love thee!

I tried durian, a tropical fruit grown in Southeast Asia, for the first time about a week ago. Rick is at home for his brother’s graduation, and so I’ve had quite a bit of extra time on my hands. Needing a break from watching episodes of The Wire, and craving a novel experience, I finally gave in to my curiosity and bought some durian pods at the local fruit stand.

I had always been reluctant to try it, because it’s famous for smelling really gross, like rotting vegetables. In some countries, it’s banned on public transportation because of the smell. It’s also extremely divisive: people either love it, or it makes them hurl. Alfred Russel Wallace, a British naturalist who wrote about eating the fruit in 1856, described it as “perfect,” and said its “most exquisite flavor is unsurpassed.” The Food Network chef Andrew Zimmerman, on the other hand, said it tastes like “completely rotten, mushy onions.”  I had no idea what to expect.

What I experienced biting into its flesh was something akin to ecstasy. Everything about the fruit is difficult to describe, because it’s so unique. The scent, to me, is not altogether displeasing, but is certainly pungent. The texture is like creamy custard, like a less-dense avacado, with a dash of pulpiness like you would find in a citrus fruit (but is not acidic like a citrus fruit). The flavor is indescribable. It’s sweet, but not overly sweet, and its fatty for a fruit–five grams of fat per 100 grams, according to the wikipedia page. The fattiness adds a luscious, savory element. The flavor is truly indescribable. I refuse to even try. It’s one of the greatest things I’ve ever tasted.

Now durian haunts me. It’s all I think about, dream about. I know I shouldn’t overconsume it, especially as I now live a low-carb, no-added-sugar lifestyle (I’m convinced sugar and refined grains are the cause all the world’s chronic diseases; look up Gary Taubes). One durian pod is about half my daily carbohydrate allowance. ALso, it’s not cheap – 25 kuai for 2 pods, which are about the size of an avocado. And it makes your breath stink, a lot. (Lucky for Rick that he’s out of town!)

But I can’t stop. Other sugary treats that used to entice me seem like pig slop in comparison to the almighty durian, unless they include durian of course (like durian ice cream, which I got to try when I was in Hong Kong). Other foods I used to think were the most delicious thing I’ve ever eaten have been downgraded in my mind to “very good but not as good as durian” status. Every time I eat it, it tastes better than the last time! How is that possible?!? Every time I buy it, the fruit stand lady knowingly chuckles at me with flashing eyes. She knows.

She knows I’m a junkie.

The most painful part about my addiction, however, is the knowledge that I won’t have easy access to this luscious fruit in the US. Most Americans have never even heard of it. I did some research and discovered you can sometimes find it frozen or canned in Asian supermarkets, but I’m sure it pales in comparison to the fresh stuff.

I dabbled in self-delusion for a day or two, thinking of ways I can cook durian into recipes so that when I’m home, I can open a durian themed restaurant to justify importing it fresh every day. Durian creme brûlée. Durian ice cream. Chocolate-covered durian. Durian pudding, durian cake, durian pie. Yesterday, I cooked up some durian with 2 tablespoons of butter and topped it with cinnamon, ate it hot. It was amazing, but not as good as the raw fruit by itself. The problem is that you can’t improve on it, which is why the restaurant concept is actually a terrible idea. What was I thinking?

I just need to enjoy durian while I can, for the next few weeks, and then kick the habit cold turkey. No more late-night runs. No more recipes. No more stinky breath. No more delusions. As much as I love it, it was not meant to be something I eat every day. I think the experience of eating durian on its own justifies coming to China. I will cherish the memories.

When did I grow up?

June 9, 2011

I turned 23-years-old yesterday. My Facebook wall saw more activity in that one day than in the rest of the year combined (which I know from the email notifications and because I spent part of the day in Hong Kong, not because I can access Facebook here). And I realized, I’m no longer college-aged.

When did I grow up?

My parents have always assured me that I am very mature for my age. I won’t argue with them on that point. But age-wise, and behavior-wise, I was still a kid. I was still entirely financially dependent on my parents, and entirely dependent on them in a million ways. My life was completely structured by outside forces or by groups of people I chose to join. My time was filled up with things, none of which had to do with building a livlihood or existing in the real world. I lived in a world of overlapping bubbles: the home bubble, the school bubble, the various extra-curricular bubbles. I took many things for granted.

The bubbles all popped and I landed in China, where I now do the following grown-up things that I’ve never really done before:

  • I pay rent every month.
  • I pay bills for things like my cell phone, water, gas, and electricity.
  • I work Mon-Fri, 9-5 at a desk job in a city. They pay me to work there.
  • I commute to said job, 45 minutes each way.
  • When I want to eat, I either have to cook or go out to eat.
  • When I cook, I have to go buy groceries first.
  • I read the news every day.
  • I understand what it means when someone says “the Dow fell 3 points.”
  • I book all my own plane flights.
  • I deal with my own documentation issues (like my visa).
  • I pay taxes. (To China, for now. Meh.)
  • I get tax refunds. (From the US government.)
  • I plan vacations.
  • I have grown up friends. Most of them are older than me. Some of them have babies. One of them just had a baby on June 7th.
  • I make my own life decisions. Nobody else structures anything for me (not even at work).
  • I read a lot of nonfiction books.
  • I read New York Times editorials, and discuss them with my boyfriend.
  • I have been dating the same person for 2 years and 8.5 months. (Best years of my life <3)
  • I think about things like getting married, and they don’t seem weirdly distant or impossible the way they once did.
  • I can live anywhere.
  • If I want to learn something new, I have to motivate myself. Nobody, or no institution, will do that for me.
  • My choices have real consequences, and the right thing to do is often very hard to figure out. Surprisingly hard.
  • I write a blog.

I don’t know how this happened. I used to think of this time, this post-college time when I would be an adult for realsies, and picture myself as a confident, powerful, successful woman. In my imagination, I would always have straight shoulder-length hair, be wearing a sharp suit, and have a briefcase. Like the one my dad always carries to work. I would be a high-powered lawyer like my dad, or a businesswomen, or some professional. The office I worked in would be very black-and-white with a lot of glass. I would drink coffee and tell other people what to do, and get paid lots of money to buy more suits.

Now that I’m here, and my life is nothing like I imagined, my image of my future self has also changed. Career-wise, instead of a clear picture, it’s a fuzzy, ever-changing kaleidescope of possible futures. I have no idea where I’ll end up, but I seriously doubt I’ll look like a high-powered business exec. That’s not the life I want for myself (except maybe the telling people what to do part). I don’t want long work hours, I don’t want fancy expensive clothes. I want a job where I connect with people. I want a job where I can think outside the box. I want a job where I’m not tied to a computer all day, doing what others expect of me obediently and getting a fat paycheck. But other than those vague guidelines, future!morgan changes moment by moment, as new ideas and possibilities flit across my mind.

The one picture that is clear for me is my future self in the home. In the home, I’m a wife and mother. I have a big family – lots of children, but also extended family nearby, in and out all the time. I have a big bright kitchen where I cook a lot, for all the people. I’m surrounded by people I love and their laughter. This is the most important thing to me, to fulfill this vision. Whatever happens with my career, well, it’ll happen. There will be ups and downs. But if I create a life for myself where I’m surrounded by loved ones, and part of a real community, and rooted in a home that I love, I’ll be happy. That’s what matters most to me.

I know I can make this vision a reality. I just know it. I’m so blessed to have already found a partner who wants all the same things, and values these things most highly. With that picture in my mind, I can’t wait to keep growing (up)!

The Hunger Games – eerily similar to China?

June 3, 2011

Okay: obviously, the Chinese government doesn’t take poor children from across the country and pit them against each other in a battle to the death. I make no such claims. But I must say, after reading Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games trilogy about a dystopian future America, I was unsettled by the similarity of her world to China, right now.

In the Hunger Games, what used to be America is now Panem, a country where most of the people are very poor – many barely surviving on their poor rations – while an elite lives lavishly in the Capitol, where the totalitarian government reins. The people of Panem each live in a district with a production specialty. The protagonist, Katniss, lives in District 12, the coal mining district. District 1 makes luxury goods, District 3 is the factory hub, District 6 is lumber, District 11 is agriculture, etc.  The districts that make expensive things – like luxury goods and seafood – live more comfortably than those who make cheaper essentials, like agriculture and coal, who basically live in poverty.

In the Capitol, however, people live in the utmost luxury. They eat so much that it’s commonplace to purposefully induce vomiting to allow more eating. They voraciously consume government-produced entertainment (the pinnacle being the Hunger Games, akin to the Roman Games), they are obsessed with fashion, and their lives are full of comforts that all they can worry about are the most superficial things. No one in the Capitol ever has to worry about having enough to eat. The Capitol is a lot like the developed urban West today. And it’s a lot like Shanghai.

Despite the parallels between the lives of those in Collins’s fictional Capitol and my life at home in America, the China parallel stuck out much more clearly because China’s inequality is far worse than America’s. Sure, we have a huge wealth gap; but that’s largely because the rich are so goshdarn rich. In China, it’s much worse, because the gap is due much more to the large number of people still living in poverty.  China’s GDP per capita is $3774.  America’s is $48,989. Check out this chart. Wow.

Meanwhile, most of us in Shanghai live very, very comfortably, and the best off (including most foreigners) live lavishly. Parties late into the night, dining out constantly, shopping all the time, sipping our lattes that cost more than the entire day’s meal budget for most Chinese families.  Who produces all the goods we gorge on here? The people in the inland provinces–like Panem’s Districts. Mongolia does coal. Guangdong does textiles. Yunan makes coffee. And only 25% of rural Chinese families owned a refrigerator. There’s no way they take hot showers on a regular basis.

The difference in lifestyle between those in Shanghai, Beijing, Guangdong, and Shenzhen (China’s richest cities) and the rest of the nation is stark. I know this because of my visit to Henan province last year. I was in a touristy area, but I was still blown away by the dirty, drab, overcrowded cities we drove through. I saw abject poverty–people living in their own filth, begging for food.  I also remember being shocked after  learning about the housing for teachers during my summer at Harvard Beijing Academy. While the pampered American students (like me)  got to stay in air conditioned private rooms, with maid service and private bathrooms, the teachers–most hailing from poorer regions of China–were crowded into tight barrack-like rooms with no air conditioning, and had to walk a block to get to the shared bathroom. I brought two suitcases full of clothes, but most of my teachers only had two or three outfits that they rotated. It’s an entirely different standard of living.

Furthermore, as in the Hunger Games books, many people in China still have barely enough to eat. This is why the accelerated inflation over the last six months has made Beijing absolutely paranoid. They do NOT want an uprising. And like in The Hunger Games, the government suppressed uprising how? With an iron fist. I’m sure you’ve read about the Chinese government’s reaction to uprisings in Tibet and Xinjiang provinces. Or even the crazy over-the-top crackdown on the non-existent revolution named after a flower inspired by the Middle East (I’m still careful not to type our the name here).

Granted, I should be fair to China’s government: over the past 30 years, millions of people have been lifted out of actual poverty. Since the Mao days, everyone’s lives are getting better as the country gets richer. Few are actually starving to death, whereas millions did under Mao. Things are getting better.

But the truth is, most of China’s new wealth has gone to the big coastal cities (China’s Capitol), and most of the people in the countryside and migrant workers live lives in stark contrast to the wealthier members of society. Lives without the basic comforts and securities people in the cities have come to expect. They don’t have clean water (factory pollution is a huge problem). Often, they don’t have running water. Few can afford to buy a car.

Meanwhile, China’s number of millionaires is growing faster than anywhere in the world, as is its market for luxury goods, high priced real estate, and Bordeaux wine. The wealth is very highly concentrated at the top. The government is fully aware of the widening income gap, and the problems it presents.  Recently, Beijing cracked down on luxury ads in the city, not wanting to draw such public attention to the income gap.

The government is so afraid of rebellion that, in reaction to recent uprisings in Mongolia, Beijing pledged a huge amount of money to go towards development of the region and preservation of its culture. They also cracked down heavily on protest–but the greedy Capitol in The Hunger Games would have reacted much, much more harshly in such a situation, and never, ever would have pledged more investment to appease protesters.

The saddest part is, I know that the parallels between The Hunger Games and the developing world are much, much scarier in other parts of the world, like war-torn sub-Saharan Africa. People really are starving to death, and tearing each other to bloody shreds, while fat cats in government live exorbitantly luxurious lifestyles of the backs of the practically ensalved populace.

China isn’t nearly as bad. At least there’s relative peace. But how much oppression is that peace and harmony (and efficient infrastructure building) really worth? Before reading The Hunger Games, I thought it was worth a lot, and underrated by people in the west. Now?  I don’t know anymore.

I’m becoming more and more disillusioned with the benefits of authoritarian government, and I suspect that the income gap problem will persist until there’s a major change in government. I don’t think it necessarily will happen through revolution (in fact, I really hope it doesn’t), but it needs to happen.  One day at a time.

Shanghai vs. Hong Kong

May 18, 2011

The Bund at night. Some kinda magic in person. Also, the green speck off to the right is the building where I work 🙂

And the winner is… Shanghai! After a three-day stay in sticky-hot Hong Kong, I can faithfully say that I prefer Shanghai. I think the city is easily more pleasant and livable city than Hong Kong overall, although Hong Kong has its high points. I’ll break it down for you interested parties, or offended Hong Kong lovers, in categories that are in no way ranked (just numbered because of my love of lists).

Disclaimer: This list entirely subjective, and does not claim to be anything more definitive than my personal opinion. Finally, I’m considering these cities as places to live, not as travel destinations – and I’ve never actually lived in Hong Kong. Just so that’s all clear up front.

1. WeatherWinner – Shanghai

This is just too easy. Unless you’re a mutant who thrives in an opressively hot, humid environment, Shanghai wins by a landslide. Shanghai has a beautiful spring and fall. Summer is humid and hot, like in Hong Kong (though I would bet not nearly as bad), and winter is cold, but not too cold. It’s similar to the weather in New York. Hong Kong is grossly hot. Yuck.

2. Environment: Winner – Hong Kong

This one is also way too easy. Hong Kong is clearly the winner, becuase it’s surrounded by lush greenery, mountains, and blue skies. Shanghai is flat and polluted, and there aren’t nearly enough green things like trees or parks. Here, Hong Kong takes the cake.

3. People Density (a.k.a. crowded-ness): Winner – Shanghai

I was convinced Shanghai was crowded. It was the most crowded place I’d ever been, especially during rush hour on the subway. But I was wrong. Shanghai is full of wide, open spaces and is sparsely populated compared to the horrific density that is Hong Kong. Granted, not all of Hong Kong is crowded all the time. Rick and I stayed in Kowloon, in the Mongkok district, which is hear is one of the most crowded areas of the city. Still, no matter what district I was in, and at any time of day, I was blown away by how many people could squeeze onto one sidewalk.

4. Urban Design and Aesthetic Appeal: Winner – Shanghai

The Pudong skyline and the Bund are prettier than anything Hong Kong has to offer at night. Wider streets and sidewalks make for a happy Morgan. Finally, Shanghai has a far superior aesthetic appeal, in my opinion. Hong Kong is narrow and small and cramped, with way way WAY too many flashing neon signs and buildings covered with advertisements. The clutter makes my head hurt–too much visual stimulation. +1 Shanghai.

5. Public Transportation and Traffic: Winner – Hong Kong

These buses are nifty, nice British hangover. You can tour the city for practically nothing from the unblocked view up top!

This was a close one. The airports and subway systems are pretty much on par. Hong Kong barely inches out Shanghai because it’s got these nifty double-decker buses everywhere. Also, there are hardly any mopeds, a huge plus in my book. Finally, Hong Kong’s drivers aren’t nearly as insane as Shanghai’s. I never once feared for my life while in a cab in Hong Kong, like I have many a time in Shanghai. Plus, in Hong Kong people travel on ferries a lot! Cool!

But as for transportation cards, it’s about a tie. Hong Kong’s Octopus Card is awesome because you can use it at convenience stores and even some restaurant chains, like it’s a debit card. Shanghai’s Jiaotong Ka (交通卡) is awesome because you can use it to pay cab drivers, something the Octopus Card can’t do. But then, the name Octopus Card is way cooler. (Jiaotong Ka translates to “transportation card.” Clever, Shanghai municipal government. That was sarcasm.)

6. Language: Winner – Shanghai

This is a totally subjective answer, and many Westerners would likely disagree with me, but I highly prefer the Mandarin-with-a-little-English of Shanghai to the Cantonese-English-Mandarin-Indonesian-Tagalog mess that is Hong Kong. First of all, I speak Mandarin and English, but no Cantonese; so I’m fully functional in Shanghai, less so in Hong. (To be fair, nearly everyone in Hong Kong speaks English, lessening the problem.)  Second of all, I prefer the sound of Mandarin/Shangainese to Cantonese, with it’s 80 tones. (Just kidding – only 8 tones. Still.)  Finally, Hong Kong’s many immigrants speak a bunch of other languages, which make it even more of a Tower of Babble. Magnify the noise by the crowds (see #3 above), and I think you get my point.

7. Food and Dining: Winner – Shanghai

Xiaolongbao soup dumplings

A bit of a toughie. Shanghai’s food, it seems to me, is a tad more diverse and way cheaper. It’s also less safe (food scandals abound), but not if you shop at expat supermarkets. Plus, new restaurants and bars are constantly opening in Shanghai, and China’s multitude of regional cuisines are all featured in abundance–Sichuan food, Xinjiang food, Hunan food, etc. Hong Kong is more set in its ways. Finally, I’ll take xiaolongbao (delicate soup dumplings) and shengjianbao (fried, hearty soup dumplings) over dim sum any day. This is a close one, though.

8. Service Sector: Winner – Hong Kong

There is barely any service at all in Shanghai. In the average restaurant, you have to flail your arms and shout for five minutes before a waiter approaches you; and the waiters are usually impatient and in a bad mood. There are no tips, so nobody tries, and nobody really cares anyway (except the expats). In Hong Kong, there is pretty decent service. All service people speak good English. If they give you the wrong drink, they’ll replace it for free. They smile and stuff. It’s really nice.

9. Expat Scene: Winner – Shanghai

This is largely based on what I’ve heard, not on what I’ve experienced, but I think Shanghai is more international and younger than Hong Kong  (Hong Kong is quite British, and it’s an older crowd), and the expat social scene is better overall. More welcome to newcomers who are still finding their way, like me and Rick.  Also, Shanghai has many havens that feel like you’re back home. I found none of those in Hong Kong; even the Starbucks stores felt less like home than the ones in Shanghai. Some expat places in Shanghai are very unlocalized expat joints, you know? Maybe Hong Kong has those too, but I didnt’ encounter any.

10. Political, Internet, and Personal Freedoms: Winner – Hong Kong

This one’s a little too obvious to explain, so all just list a few things: Facebook, Youtube, Google services, visas, political protest, capital markets… you get the picture.

Shanghai 6, Hong Kong 4 – Shanghai wins!  But I’m super biased. I’ve grown fond of Shanghai since arriving. It feels a bit like home now. Another reason for Shanghai’s win that I did not address above: Shanghai is full of this energy that Hong Kong lacks. Hong Kong has the bustle of New York, but it also has the sort of worn in feel of New York. It’s sort of a has-been city. Shanghai is an up-and-comer. It’s one of the centers of China’s modernization, China’s transformation. Hong Kong is old news, but Shanghai is it.

I’ve said my piece. Feel free to comment with your thoughts on the match-up.