Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Shanghai Sights

We haven’t been posting as much on what we’ve been doing here in Shanghai because our internet is so slow. And by slow, I mean painfully slow. It took us 24 hours to download a one hour show from iTunes the other day; even watching little video clips on the internet can take two to three times the length of the clip. As we get no English TV, this means we’re stuck watching whatever DVDs we can score on the street.

Slow internet also makes it difficult to upload pictures to the blog, which is the best part of blogging about our adventures. Because really – looking at what we’ve seen and done is far more interesting than reading about what we’ve seen and done. As a result, our blogging of late has tended to be prose heavy and focused on observations. Rest assured though, we have been exploring the city, albiet at a slower pace as the boys are in school during the week. Our first weekend was spent settling in and getting the lay of the land, although we did manage a jaunt down to the Bund, Shanghai’s most famous tourist attraction.

Given the school adjustment, we spent last weekend, our first real weekend here, doing things we thought the boys might enjoy. We visited Pudong (via the Bund Tourist Tunnel - as cheesy as it sounds), the new part of Shanghai; gleaming and modern, it’s all been built on land that just 20 or so years ago used to be farmland.

The main draw of the day was Shanghai aquarium; while we all liked it, I think I enjoyed it the most as Doug and the boys had visited an aquarium in Xiamen just a week or so ago.

Given that Pudong is so new (reader bigger and cleaner accommodations), it’s become a bit of an expat haven, so we also managed to score some pretty good Italian food for dinner and sourced some Morningstar veggie sausage links, much to the delight of the boys.  They also loved checking out the Pearl Orient Tower up close, although we're going to save ascending to the top for a day with clearer weather.

On Sunday, we hit the Yu gardens, a beautifully classic Chinese garden created in the 16th century; the boys got to run around a bit and then check out all the tchotchkes at the surrounding bazaar, which is filled with touristy junk targeted mostly at mainland tourists.

Dinner was at the Western-style Boxing Cat Brew pub, making it the second Sunday in a row that we’ve managed to a) eat at a brew pub and b) take our kids to a bar. Apparently, it’s the expat thing to do though; while we at Boxing Cat, our future selves also visited (i.e. another American couple, a few years older than us, with their two boys, a few years older than our boys, playing video games on their phones sat next to us).

Not sure what this weekend has in store – probably more exploring of the neighborhood and Doug’s birthday celebration! – but you’ll probably hear about it in a week or so – which is how long it may take to upload the pictures recounting our journeys!

Monday, February 27, 2012

Random Observations 2/28/2012

  • I went out for my first run the other day here in Shanghai. If I had 6RMB (about a dollar) for every one of the – what the heck is that crazy white girl doing? – looks I got while I was out, I would have had enough to take the whole family out for dinner and drinks. Seriously. It wasn’t even that long of a run (about 3 miles), but almost everyone on the street was staring. We’re the subject of constant gawking (the other day, a guy even ran his bicycle into the curb as he stared at Doug and me walking home), but the sight of me running in my spandex knickers was apparently just too much.
  • At home, I’m very price conscious when I shop. I have almost no brand loyalty when it comes to grocery shopping, and I almost never buy clothes or household goods if they’re not on sale. But here, it’s a whole different story. There’s a constant calculus of – is it really the best idea to buy the cheapest so and so in China? Take for instance frying pans. We needed a new non-stick frying pan (as ours was beyond gross), but given that lack of safety regulations, do I really want to buy the cheapest kind of pan coated with god knows what (one of my Fulbright colleagues reports there are still pans on the market that have a chemical that’s been linked to Parkinson’s – sweet)? Same with things like rice or laundry detergent. Really makes me appreciate safety regulations in the U.S. While there are times when I think we may have gone a bit overboard back home, it’s comforting to know that I can confidently buy cheap things in the U.S. and not constantly worry that I’m shaving a few years off my families’ lives.
  • And speaking of risking lives, crossing streets here is a nightmare. I know Doug pointed this out in his previous post, but it bears repeating. One of the State Department officials at our orientation commented that the most dangerous time to cross the street is when you have the green cross signal, and he was totally right. The rule of the road here is might makes right. And in that system, pedestrians are the bottom of the barrel. So, when you’re crossing (with a green cross signal mind you), you have to watch out for right turning cars, trucks and buses that do not even slow down in making their turn, and scooters, electric bicycles (the silent but deadly killers), and bicycles going through the light no matter what the color. And any one of the last three can be going right, straight, left – even through the pedestrian traffic with you. Oftentimes, you’ll find them running in the opposite direction of traffic or on the sidewalk with you. We’ve told the boys that the way to cross the street is to swivel your head – left, right, left, right – the ENTIRE time you’re crossing the street. Throw in a bit of brief sprints or back tracking, and you really start to feel like you’re in a real life version of Frogger.
  • Walking down the sidewalk is no safer than crossing the street either. In addition to the above mentioned fact that scooters, bikes, and electric bikes often ride down the sidewalk, it’s not uncommon for cars to park on there too, which means they need to drive down the sidewalk to get to said parking spot. Oftentimes, the sidewalks are sidewalks in name only.  For example, the sidewalk just across the street from the park is completely taken over by bicycle parking, requiring you to step out on to the hair-raising street to make forward progress. It’s also not uncommon for little store fronts or carts to take over the sidewalk as part of their business. Just outside the gate of our complex, there’s a bicycle repair cart that does a brisk business, meaning it’s impossible to walk on the sidewalk most of the day. Despite all this chaos, we rarely see any accidents. Maybe everyone has come to expect the unexpected, so they’re constantly aware of the potential for danger. Maybe we’ve just been lucky. Regardless, all this chaos certainly makes everyday life far more interesting.

Risky Business

 In Xiamen (by a regulation railing)

The Chinese have a much higher tolerance for risk than Americans. I regularly see things that would only rarely occur in the US. People standing on the very top of a ladder. Sixteen-inch railings. No railings. People standing on the very top of a ladder next to no railing. Ten meter fault lines due to subsidence as a result of skyscraper construction that is outpacing engineers' understanding. Street food vendors—successful ones—with highly questionable food safety practices. Tile along a major public sidewalk that is decrepit and crumbling and inviting a dangerous fall. In the US, someone would sue so, as a result, someone would fix the tile; apparently no one sues the Chinese government.

Some of the worst risks involve transportation. No one wears a seatbelt. No one wears a helmet. The little electric bikes/scooters are a rich source of potential disasters. I’ve seen a family of four somehow perched on one. Most have a little platform to rest your feet on, which also doubles as place to carry stuff. My favorite cargo was a tank of propane, held in by the rider’s knees. The scooters never follow traffic rules, regularly running through reds, running against traffic, running through reds against traffic, running down sidewalks. I find it difficult to believe I’ve seen no fatalities yet.

This attitude toward risk also affects official decision making. The high-speed train that was built between Shanghai and Beijing crashed recently, only months after being constructed. As someone pointed out to me, engineers know how to make these trains run safely. They’ve done so in Japan for many years without incident. But, the Chinese wanted to run them extra fast, and they were willing to accept the risk.

Sometimes risk is borne out of necessity. In rural areas, there have been a number of accidents involving school buses, which are packed dangerously full with children (64 kids packed into a nine-person van). These risks are accepted by parents and school administrators because it’s the only way to make school transportation economically feasible. Make the buses safer and no one could afford to send their kids to school.

This attitude toward risk has obvious downsides. People get hurt. At the same time, risk also has rewards. Nothing wagered, nothing gained.

I think this willingness to take risks has something to do with the explosive levels of economic growth in China (9.7% increase in GDP on average each year 2000-2010). The Chinese are natural entrepreneurs. Once the Communist Party allowed these proclivities to flourish by opening the door to private enterprise, the Chinese made the most of it.

Combined with another obvious characteristic of the Chinese—their willingness to work really, really hard—I believe their risk acceptance has set the stage for an impressive level of economic development. I just hope none of us falls over a railing while we're here enjoying the fruits of the contemporary Chinese economy.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

School -Round Two

After almost one month off, the boys finally started school again on Tuesday. 
Don’t get me wrong - it was a great experience to visit so many places, but I think we're all pretty relieved to be back in a routine again.

While there is not as much of a crunch for space in the international schools here in Shanghai, the schools here are WAY more expensive than in Hong Kong. So, despite the fact that our budget from the Fulbright program increased from $5,000 per semester per child to $7,500 per child per semester, that wasn’t even going to come close to covering the cost of most international schools here. We tried to do some wheeling and dealing (because really – adding one more child to an existing class doesn’t increase the cost of the school much at all; they have the building, they have the teacher, so all they would need would be supplies) with not much luck. However, we were able to find two schools that were close to our price range (since the boys started school late, they were pro-rating the spring semester fees for us). Now that we’re here, we can see why the schools cost so much; ads in the local expat family magazine showcase the new theaters, rock walls, cafeterias, etc. at these schools, and let me tell you – they are top rate.

Despite the fact that the boys’ school doesn’t have a rock wall or new theater, we’re really pleased with Rainbow Bridge so far. It’s a lovely little school with a beautiful library, good sized gym and lots of open space for the kids to run around during recess. The school has been working on IB certification and hopes to receive that this spring. The IB curriculum is an inquiry-based curriculum that is interdisciplinary and international in focus; really, if we could pick any sort of curriculum for the boys here or at home, IB would be it. The boys will also be getting Putonghua lessons daily – this time in English! And the school is located on the grounds of the Shanghai Zoo, which the school apparently takes advantage of by integrating regular trips to the zoo (when the weather’s nicer) into the curriculum.

In addition to the excellent curriculum, the staff seems great too. The student-run publication had an article noting that there were at least 10 vegetarian teachers at the school, so it seems to be a bit of a liberal, hippie-ish enclave – perfect for us. We’re happy with the boys’ teachers, too, as they both seem to be well-suited for the boys. Quin has Mr. Franco; Doug and I remarked that if he wasn’t Quin’s teacher, we’d love to hang out with him. Berkley’s teacher is Ms. Michelle; I love her nose piercing and the fact that she’s managed Berkley’s transition issues quite deftly.  Both boys are happy to be back to a system more like they have in America, with one teacher for most of their subjects.
Socially, the boys seem to be fitting in well (despite Berkley’s aforementioned issues which I think stemmed from nervousness about hitting it off with his peers). Unlike Gigamind, their school in Hong Kong, Rainbow Bridge is an international school, populated mainly by the children of expats. Last night at literacy night, we overheard families speaking all sorts of languages. In Berkley’s class alone, there are children from Hong Kong, China, Japan, South Korea, England, and the United States (there may be more, but that’s what I remember). There are kids from the U.S. in all of the grades, including some boys Quin’s age with long hair! So while the boys won’t be exposed to as many local kids, they’ll be meeting kids from all around the world, and the school seems to be used to kids coming in and out at any point in time, thus helping ease their transition.

All in all then, we’re very happy with our choice. I think the only drawback is that it’s about a 20 minute walk to catch the bus. Not a big deal in the afternoon on the way home, when we can walk through the park and let the boys run off some steam, but it can be tough to get them going in the morning. Hopefully, as the semester wears on, we’ll have the same happy feelings, but after a month of just the four of us, I think it would be difficult for us not to appreciate what we have.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

First Class

As some of you saw on Facebook, yesterday I taught my first class here in China. I’m teaching two classes this semester: one for undergraduates (Introduction to U.S. Politics) and one for graduates (U.S. State Politics); last night was the first meeting of my graduate class. Now, when I teach in the U.S., I am pretty much ready to go the first day of class. I have my syllabus ready, my class roster in hand, my semester planned out, and importantly, I know where to go and at what time.

But as of 4:00 pm last night, I had none of these things. Generally speaking, I’m pretty type-A, so normally, this would kill me. However, I had been told at my Fulbright orientations to expect this, so I’ve been trying to go with the flow. This approach has served me pretty well so far, but by last night, I was a bundle of nerves. Despite my almost complete lack of information, the first class meeting seemed to go pretty well, although I don’t feel like I have much more information now than I did at 4:000 p.m. last night. Yes – I did find out when and where my graduate class is meeting, but that’s about it. I don’t know how many students will be in the class, or how they’ll get the readings (I gave my student copy of the text to the chair who said she would have a student take care of it, but I don’t know if they’ll have the readings for next class). And I still don’t know when or where I’m teaching the undergraduates. I was told earlier that I would be teaching them on the new campus on Tuesday mornings. When I mentioned that to the department chair (who was kind enough to meet me and walk me over to class), she said – yes, but perhaps on Wednesday morning. Um – okay. I guess the problem stems from the fact that students here generally don’t have any free electives, as there’s no general education or idea of a liberal education. You take classes that are on the books, and they count for something. Since my classes are not on the books (they don’t offer them regularly), they don’t count. Therefore, the university is offering the classes for no credit, since if they were credit-bearing, students would have to pay – and they don’t want to pay for something that doesn’t count (understandably). Of course, this creates the problem that the class doesn’t count for anything, so no one wants to take it. Sigh.

Despite the fact that my class doesn’t count for anything, I had over 20 students attending last night. Who knows how many of them will end up showing up for the class regularly, but generally speaking, I was pretty impressed. Yes – their English was not perfect, but to me, that doesn’t matter. I mean – they’re taking a class in a language that’s not their native language. In the U.S., we typically reserve those sorts of classes for students who are majoring or minoring in a foreign language, not students who are majoring in something else. And even then, the students and teachers can fall back to their native English if need be. We can’t do that here. Given this constraint (and that I don’t know any important details like whether I’ll be assigning grades, what the semester calendar looks like, etc., etc.), I decided to spend last night’s class breaking the ice, which some funny results. First, I told the students about myself and my life in America. I told them about my academic background and a little about my personal life. There were noticeable gasps from the class when I showed pictures of my son Quinlan (who has long hair) – confirming our suspicion that the Chinese just don’t know what’s up with a boy with long hair – along with my house (even more gasps when I explained it was an average size house in the U.S.). Then, I gave them a chance to ask me questions; each student wrote down a question, put it in a hat, and then they took turns drawing the questions out of a hat. This allowed me to assess their English skills, but also allowed them to ask all sorts of questions they might be too embarrassed to ask. And let me tell you: they asked some doozies. Among the questions were:
  • How much did your house cost?
  • Describe your romantics with your husband.
  • You have two kids and are so beautiful. How do you do it?
  • How old are you? My response of 40 also drew audible gasps; they said it was because they thought I was MUCH younger. Suuure.
  • Who do you think is the most beautiful girl in the class, not including our teacher?
 Luckily, since the questions were anonymous, I couldn’t ask what they meant, so I interpreted them how I wanted. For instance, I described how I met Doug rather than interpreting my “romantics” with my husband to mean something else. I then spent some time getting to know them and in the process, committed my first two faux pas in class here in China. First, I asked them to pair up and interview each other; each student was then to introduce the other student to me, by presenting three facts about their partner. In giving them examples of what they could tell me, I noted they could talk about what kind of food they like, what they liked to do, or whether they had any brothers or sisters. Of course, China has had the one child policy for decades now, so the overwhelming majority of them had no siblings. Whoops. It was also during this process that I made my second mistake, as I asked them to tell me where their partner was from as one of the facts. I included a map of China in my PowerPoint presentation, so they could point out where in China that was. Without thinking, I grabbed what looked to me like a generic map of China off the internet, but while walking home, the department chair (who studies Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan) noted that on my map, Taiwan was a different color than China (China sees Taiwan as part of China, while Taiwan sees itself as independent – this is one issue the Fulbright folks told us to avoid talking about in class). Whoops again.

Despite these faux pas and my continuing lack of knowledge about how the class is actually going to work, I’m excited to get to know these students over the course of the semester. They seem like good kids, and I know that I’ll probably learn as much from them as they learn from me. I’m supposed to be meeting with the chair and the dean of the school on Monday for lunch at which point I’m supposed to get more information to work with. I use the word “supposed” liberally here as every time I say to someone that I’ll see them on Monday, I get a kind of evasive – uh, yes – so who knows if that will really happen. Regardless, I’m going to continue trying to go with the flow as I teach these classes and see where this adventure takes me. To quote the movie Cool Runnings (a family favorite): Peace be the journey.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Random Observations 2/22/2012

I’m back with more random observations, this time from China. Most of these center on comparisons between Shanghai and Hong Kong, which we’re just starting to wrap our brain around. I’m sure there will be more of these as the semester moves on, but for now, here are some initial thoughts.
  • We have a cleaning lady who comes in each day at 10:00 am. Sounds way more luxurious than it actually is as all she does is empty the trash and then clean the floor with a wet mop. Yes - that’s right, she mops each day although she doesn’t sweep. As a result, the corners in all of the rooms are pretty nasty, as all the dirt and crap on the floor has just been shoved there. It looks as gross as it sounds, so a broom is definitely high on our list of things to purchase this week.
  • And really – China is much dirtier than Hong Kong, not just inside our apartment which seems to have a fine layer of grime on just about everything. Outside, as Doug mentioned, hawking loogies is de rigueur, and today we saw our first child relieving herself streetside. The latter is so common here that all small children wear split pants for easy access – be careful where you step!
  • China is also nosier than Hong Kong. The street we live off of is particularly crazy; at best, there is room for two small cars to pass, and even that’s a tight squeeze. But this street is also packed with bicycles, electric bicycles (both those for riders only and those for ferrying loads of whatever – cardboard, fruits, water bottles, etc), scooters and so on - all sharing the same road. Any time any one of these vehicles passes another, a friendly toot of the horn is in order which means that it’s constant cacophony.
  • At the same time, there seems to be a lot more that’s familiar here in China, at least in terms of chains and shops. Now, this may be because we’re much more centrally located here as compared to Hong Kong, but there are KFCs and Starbucks everywhere (which is helping to facilitate my new coffee habit) and in the mall near us, there are all sorts of Western chains (for food alone, we have Hagen Daas, Subway, Pizza Hut, Cold Stone Creamery, Burger King, and MacDonalds in addition to two Starbucks and a KFC – just of the top of my head and without full exploration of the mall).
  • This is a great comfort to us as we’re increasingly drawn to the creature comforts of home. When we were preparing to come here, we didn’t think this would be the case. We figured we’d been eating at all of the local hole in the wall joints. But those hole in the walls don’t often have English menus, which makes it a challenge for us vegetarians. Even with English menus in larger restaurants, we often find meat in what we order (as an example, Doug’s volcano vegetable ramens yesterday came with a heaping serving of beef on top), so steering towards what’s safe helps. On Sunday, this meant we hit the Shanghai Brewery for nachos and fries (along with beers of course). It was a big hit all around. Don’t get me wrong – we love exploring local cuisine, but it’s nice to have options. And the options seem to be a bit more expansive here – partially due to location but also due to the fact that Western food seems a bit less expensive here than in Hong Kong.

I don’t mean for all of these comparisons to sound negative as really, we’re very happy here so far. Our location is great (we were able to hop over to a pizza joint selling NY style slices in about 20 minutes – that would have taken over an hour in Hong Kong) and our apartment is just fine. More updates to come – I have my first class tonight, and the boys are off enjoying the first week of school. We’ll post more on both of these events soon.