Thursday, April 26, 2012

Random Observations 4/26

As we’ve noted previously, you see all sorts of folks in Zhongshan park, particularly exercising seniors. My two favorites the other morning were the little old lady who was so stooped over she was just a wee bit taller than Berkley – she blew by us with her power walking – and the old man who was running through the park in running shoes, a dress shirt and boxers – and that’s it.

While smoking is far more common in China than it is at home or even in Paris (surprisingly many people smoke there), the act is almost wholly confined to men here in China, at least out in public here in Shanghai. We rarely see women smoking which is why it was so startling to me to see an old woman with a smoke hanging out of her mouth the other day.

Flying Spring Airlines, a Chinese low cost airline primarily serving Shanghai, is great fun. Aside from the excellent customer service (returning Doug’s ipad, getting me a hotel room for a 3 hour delay),they do an exercise routine a little over midway through the flight. Now, I don’t know if they do this on other Chinese airlines (we’ve only flown one other airline when coming here from Xiamen), but Spring does on every flight, and it is awesome. The attendants come out in the aisles and follow along with a pre-recorded tape. They go through all sorts of motions – stretching of the arms and legs, rubbing of the forehead and earlobes, slapping of the arms and back, clapping, etc. The other great thing is that almost all of the passengers participate. Now, I don’t know why this is, but it’s really amusing to look around and see hundreds of people (the flights are ALWAYS full) pounding their backs or rolling their heads.

In addition to Chinese zookeeper, I think Chinese flight attendant must also be an exceedingly difficult job. The Chinese won’t turn off their cellphones (probably unnecessary anyway), stow their belongings, buckle their seat belts, or even stay in their seats when they’re supposed to. I’ve seen people standing up seconds after takeoff to look out the window. The second we land, people start standing up to remove their items from the overhead bin. The reminder to remain seated runs on a pretty much continuous loop until we reach the gate. I even saw someone try to get up to go to the bathroom while we were in our approach - luckily, one of her fellow passengers stopped her or it would have been up to the flight attendant. Those poor souls are constantly having to get up to respond to flight calls (not sure why they’re calling due to the language barrier, but Chinese passengers don’t seem to get that you push the call button once, it lights up and then you wait. They press it over and over and over again) or hopping up to reprimand a passenger during a time they should surely be strapped in. If forced to choose, I’d probably choose Chinese flight attendant over Chinese zookeeper, but it’s a tough call.

Last night, I taught my final graduate class at ECUPL. It was as much of a surprise to me as it may be to you that I’m done already. You see – near the beginning of the semester, I was told I would be teaching until May 16th. But last week when I came in to class, one of the students asked if that was our last class or if we would be having one more. Just as I started to say – no, we have several more classes – the faculty member who sits in on my class interrupted to ask if we could finish class this week. It seems that the students now want credit for sitting in on my class all semester, so she will be lecturing for 2-3 weeks at which point the students will write a paper and get credit. Now, I don’t know on what planet it is preferable for students to write a paper after 2-3 weeks of class as opposed to me grading a paper written by them after 2 months of class. Oh wait – yes I do: Planet China. I do still have some more things to do (one more undergraduate lecture and some guest lectures at other institutions here in Shanghai and other cities), but it looks like I’ll now have some more time to devote to my research. As my Fulbright colleague has taught me to say: TIC (as in This is China).

Sunday, April 22, 2012

What a Long Strange Trip It's Been - Part 2

 Note: If you haven't read part 1 of this post, please read that one first or this one won't make much sense.
As I am not (last time I looked) Chinese, sleep did not come to me in that hotel room on Friday night. I read for an hour or so, then turned off the lights. After about 10 minutes, I got up to answer a knock on the door – which was for a delivery of two bottles of water and two bowls of ramen noodles. I divvied up the loot and then crawled into bed, only to be disturbed once again by a phone call 10 minutes after the food – time to go. Now, astute readers may do the math here. I finished my blog post around 9:00ish, read for an hour and then was interrupted by two visits, ten minutes apart. Yes – that’s right – we were told to leave the hotel a little more than 2 hours after we arrived there (and less than 2 hours after our flight was originally scheduled to take off. This fact astounds me as I cannot fathom a U.S. airline doing the same). I guess when Frannie said we were getting a little rest, she really meant a little rest.

And so, as I was shuttled along in a van driven by a man possessed by the need to pick up his next round of hourly hotel guests as soon as possible, stuffed in that van with a bunch of fellow passengers like Chinese preschoolers in a school bus, with the rain dripping onto my face through the open window, I must have looked totally crazy, because I could not stop laughing. As we hurtled along some random back roads at crazy speeds, it was entirely possible that this man was taking us to steal our kidneys for all I knew. But really – as I thought about so many other friends and family members that are dealing with illnesses, issues and decisions that literally are life or death, I knew this was peanuts compared to that. I realized that this is what I signed up for. I didn’t sign up for an easy trip to a country where I could speak the language. No – I signed up for China, and China was what I got on Friday night.

On my drive to and from the hotel, I got to spy the real Guangzhou – people out shopping at a market and eating at open air restaurants on a beautiful Friday night. While waiting to board the plane after the trip to the hotel, I got to talk to a group of about 10 Palestinian men who were visiting Guangzhou for a trade fair. On my plane ride home, I got to discuss Chinese politics with the man sitting next to me, a professor of finance at a local prestigious university who survived the Cultural Revolution. While I might have preferred to sleep between the hours of midnight and 2:00 a.m., he taught me a lot about the history of Chinese provincial politics. And though I crawled into bed at 3:00 am, I still managed to get 6 hours of sleep before seeing Berkley recite his speech at his school’s Earth Day fair.

I realize that in reading the first post about this adventure, it might have seemed like I was upset or stressed. But once I found Frannie (who was so kind as to look out for me until we got to the gate), I knew everything was going to be okay, so this was all actually pretty amusing. When I called Doug from the hotel room to tell him I had arrived and there was no bathroom door, I was laughing hysterically. I mean – I knew this wouldn’t kill me, and I knew it was a going to be a story to remember, so all I could do was strap in and enjoy the ride. Compared to so many others, my life is so incredibly blessed and easy, and when life hands me lemons like this, well, you can be pretty sure that I’m going to make some lemonade (and probably a blog post or two), smiling almost the whole time.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

What a Long Strange Trip It's Been - Part 1

Some of my Fulbright colleagues told me that going on lecture trips is one of the best parts of the Fulbright program. I’m not sure I’d agree at the moment, given that I’m sitting on a rock hard bed, in a sweltering hotel room with a Chinese woman name Frannie, who is in her underwear and snoring but who mercifully speaks English. But maybe I should start from the beginning of this train wreck of a trip before I get to where I am now.

This all started when I accepted an offer to give two lectures at Jinan University in Guangzhou (in order to receive funding for the trip, I’m required to give two lectures – this detail will become important later). The plan was for me to fly in Thursday, give one lecture that night, followed by a lecture on Friday and a late night flight home. Right off the bat, though, things didn’t go as planned. My flight into Guangzhou was delayed by nearly an hour and a half due to bad weather. That meant I got to Jinan, tossed down my bags, scarfed down dinner and gave my lecture. 
I should have taken it as a bad omen when my host suggested at dinner that maybe I was too tired to give a lecture on Friday? Or maybe I could give a lecture on a different topic? Clearly, they had no plan as to what was going on the next day – I should have seen that coming from a mile way. But with no game plan for the next day and potentially a talk on something I hadn’t prepared for, I spent some time Thursday night in the hotel polishing up an old presentation I had and hoped for the best. Of course, come Friday morning, it turns out that everyone was "very busy” at the end of the semester, so I didn’t actually need to fix up those old slides as I wouldn’t be doing anything. Great. I’d like to say that didn’t matter and that I had a great time in Guangzhou, but the combination of Stormageddon (which prevented me from leaving my hotel room all morning) and many consecutive meals at the university Cantonese restaurant (not my favorite kind of food) didn’t help much. I did manage to get out and about with two students who visited Chen’s Ancestral Hall and Folk Museum with me (the highlight of my trip), but by the time I headed off to the airport, I was relieved to be on my way back home.

Or so I thought until I walked into the airport and saw the flight board lit up like a Christmas tree – and not in a good way. Turns out Stormageddon was not just confined to Guangzhou; no – it managed to mess up the flight system on the entire eastern Chinese seaboard. Joy. So, like a good girl, I headed down to the gate to wait for further information. Further information came in the form of a man walking around the gate area (numerous gates share the same waiting area in many Chinese airports) – but the only words I caught were Shanghai Hongqiao (our airport) as the rest was all (obviously) in Chinese. I showed him my ticket; he nodded but didn’t speak English – only hotel and not cancelled. Hmm – what does that mean? Everyone was walking away after him though, so I followed – having no f*in’ clue as to where I was going. As I boarded the bus and took the only open seat next to a woman, I called Doug and almost lost it. Luckily, Frannie overheard me and let me know that apparently, our plane was still in Shanghai. They had no idea when it would get to Guangzhou, so they were taking us to a hotel for “a little rest” (Frannie’s words).

So, that’s how I ended up here – in a strange hotel room in the middle of nowhere Guangzhou (well not really the middle of nowhere as the sounds of airplanes taking off and the market outside the open window make it virtually impossible to sleep – unless of course you’re Chinese in which case it doesn’t matter as you have the ability to sleep virtually anywhere). And really – it could be worse. The airline didn’t have to give us a hotel; can you imagine a U.S. airline voluntarily taking a plane full of people to a hotel before the official departure time had even passed? I could have not lucked out and sat next to Frannie on the bus, and I could be stuck with some random old man (as the rooms have two twin beds, everyone has been partnered up – an event that did not phase my fellow Chinese passengers at all – see above about being able to sleep anywhere). But then again, things could also be better. There could be a bathroom door in our room (yes – that’s right. I’m sharing a hotel room with a woman I don’t even know and THERE IS NO BATHROOM DOOR), and there could be a lot less mold on the wall (I won’t even begin to describe how horrifying it is). 
Right now, all I can think of is the famous line from the Rolling Stones (I know - not entirely appropriate as the title of the post references the Grateful Dead) – you can’t always get what you want. But I tell you– what I really need right now is to get on a plane and head home. At this point though, who knows when that will happen. I’m hoping sooner rather than later as Berkley started crying tonight on the phone when I told him that I might not be able to make it to hear him read his prize-winning essay at Earth Day. I’ll sign off now as I attempt to channel my inner Chinese person and take a little rest at 9:00 at night as who knows what time they’ll come to wake me up to start on my next leg of this God-forsaken adventure.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Random Observations 4-19-12

I’ve complained a lot on this blog about discourtesy in China. I have to announce, however, that in Shanghai people are remarkably good about giving up their seat on the metro to kids and seniors. People hop up with alacrity when an older person enters the train—and I’m not talking barely-walking old, I’m talking anyone who looks like an elder. Parents with babies always get seats, and even primary-grade children can score a seat from a grown-up. Berkley plays on this, we think, looking forlorn and sighing in the hopes someone will let him sit; sometimes it works. In fact, youth might trump seniority. Quin tried to give up his seat to an older woman once and she steadfastly refused.

Speaking of elders, Chinese seniors have a commitment to exercise that’s very admirable. Every morning there are hundreds of retired folks in Zhongshan Park doing light exercise—tai chi, dance, calisthenics, etc. I wish this ethos existed in the US.

My favorite tai chi guy

The park-goers also have some other interesting hobbies. Kite-flying is a serious sport here, with grown men bringing sophisticated rigs and then standing around holding the boring end. Lately I’ve seen a lot of people playing with these whirly-whistle pods that they hurl around their bodies along a looped length of rope. It looks similar to diabolo, but they are shaped differently and they make an eerie sound, sort of like an alien spacecraft. It looks like decent exercise moving it around—kind of like a hula hoop. Last couple of days I’ve seen guys with long bull whips, crackin’ ‘em in the park (which is better than doing crack in the park).

Crack that whip!  Spin that whirly-gig!

Team sports appear, too—the favorite being badminton. But, I want to bring back to Dartmouth the latest one I’ve seen, which is like hacky sack combined with badminton. My Google Machine tells me the sport is called jian zi (which I confirmed with the group that let me join in on their game). People play in the round, like hacky sack, but they also play on a small court with a net. Instead of a sack, people play with a kind of shuttlecock called a jian zi, which is composed of feathers attached to a base of little rubber or plastic discs. The shuttlecock flies with a sort of dampened quality, like in badminton, so it’s a bit easier than hacky sack. Looks like a blast. And you could play with a Tsing Tao in your hand, too.

Jian zi.  This group let me sit in; they were impressed with the laowai's skills (honed over many hours of youthful hacky sack)

The best park spectacles are the singers, though, because they often have terrible voices and then sing through these karaoke boxes that are turned up too loud, causing them to distort, with the reverb turned all the way to 11. Remarkably, there’s almost always a crowd.

I’ve found my new favorite breakfast. On the way back from the bus stop, I go to this little kiosk-shop that sells bao zi (definitely not to be confused with jian zi), which are steamed, filled buns. The ones I like are stuffed with bits of tofu and greens. Super tasty, especially dipped in some chili sauce. Best part: I can get two for 38 cents.


One final observation: despite what the weather reports say, I’ve found the wind in Shanghai comes always from the East.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Constant Calculations

Sometimes I feel like I’m engaged in a constant cost-benefit analysis here in China. Take, for example, our trip on Sunday to Berkley’s soccer game. The league is hosted by the Shanghai American School (SAS), which is located out in the boonies. We basically have two options to get there: take the metro to the boys’ school and then take the school bus to SAS or we can take a cab directly there. The first option would take close to two hours; since the games start at 10:00 am, we’d have to leave pretty early on a weekend morning to get there. The second option only takes about a half hour. However, it’s a far riskier proposition, as cabs in China pretty much never have working seat belts in the back seat. So, the analysis is – do we take the longer, but safer route or do we take the shorter, but riskier route? Now, in the U.S., I would NEVER allow my kids to ride in a car without a seat belt, but we do that here all the time. In fact, we do it anytime we get in a moving vehicle here (as an example, the university driver met us at the airport when we arrived in Shanghai, but we had so much luggage that the four of us had to fit on a small 2.5 person bench in his minivan; rather than offending the university by declining the ride, Berkley sat on my lap – with no belt for any of us – the whole ride to our apartment). So of course, on Sunday morning, we took the cab.

At the game, I talked to one of the parents about this as we watched the kids play in the newly chalked field lines. The person who had chalked the lines was overzealous in the application of chalk, resulting in piles of white powdery stuff that were basically kid magnets – how could you resist making a huge billowy mess? We both agreed that in the U.S., we’d probably let the kids keep playing; they weren’t doing anything wrong aside from making a mess. But here in China, who knows what’s in that “chalk” – it could contain any number of really bad things. As my fellow parent noted, China still uses all sorts of products that have been banned in the U.S., including pesticides that are known to be seriously bad for you. This time, then, we erred on the side of safety and made the kids stop.

And so it is with just about everything here - constantly questioning the risks associated with engaging in so many activities. While picking up a jar of jelly the other day, I noticed that a Chinese woman was taking pictures of the shelf of jelly. Hmmm – had she never seen jelly before? Was she engaged in some sort of investigative reporting? Do I really want to buy that jar of jelly? Or there was the time when we flagged down a tuk-tuk-like cab in X’ian. As we rode in the space in the back (which was enclosed by hanging plastic curtains), we realized the gas cap was off the tank (which was inside said curtains), filling the space with gas fumes. I suppose we could have hopped out when she pulled over to pick up a massive piece of foam (which she folded up and stuck in with us), but you know – we were already half way there. What’s a few more minutes of gas fumes and risk of explosion when there's a huge piece of combustible material crammed in with us?

Now, to be fair, some of these calculations lead us to engage in riskier behaviors that also have a lot of benefits. When we arrived here, we made the decision to allow the kids FAR more independence here than we would at home. We figure since they’re typically the only white kids around, they’re usually the object of much attention, so it would be pretty noticeable if anyone tried to drag them off. Sometimes we even take this a bit too far as with the time we stopped for a bowl of noodles in the Muslim Quarter in X’ian. The boys really couldn’t stand the smell of the joint, and we didn’t want to listen to them complain, so we gave them 10 kuai to shop for Terra Cotta warriors and sent them off alone (with orders not to cross any streets) down one of the most chaotic street markets we’ve ever seen. We told one of our fellow Fulbright parents, and they were more than slightly horrified by this. But let me tell you – the boys have completely flourished with all this independence. They’re more confident and responsible, and I couldn’t be prouder of them.

Doug and I sometimes joke that by living here, we’re shaving a few years off the boys’ lives. Obviously, we hope that’s not true. But I guess if it is, the calculation we’ve made is that we hope in the years they do have, our time here will give them the experience and confidence to engage in their own cost benefit analysis and make choices that on the surface may seem crazy, but in the end, pay off with better than expected results.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Expat Lifestyle

Enjoying those expat amenities at Shanghai Brewery

We’ve come across the expat lifestyle a lot more here in Shanghai than we did in Hong Kong. Part of that is geography. In Hong Kong, we were an hour from the major expat area, while here we can get there in 20 minutes. And, also, here there are expat areas—plural. Three metro stops away is the old French Concession, with its charming architecture, boutique shops and fine food and beverages (including some excellent locally-brewed beer). But, a few more stops away is the Hongqiao/Hongmei area, near the kids’ school, which centers around a great pedestrian street with a bunch of food options. And a bit further afield, across the river, are the sprawling and swank Pudong expat areas (where I went today for that perfectly expat activity—an 8K running race).

But, also, for whatever reason I think there seems to be much more of a unique way of living here among expats. In Hong Kong, I saw a lot of young expats, working and playing hard, living in the high rises in the mid-levels above Central Hong Kong. They could be living in any city. But, in Shanghai, there seem to be a lot more families, and that entails a lot more lifestyle.

The private schools here are amazing. The campus where Berkely plays soccer—Shanghai American School—is enormous and very, very nice. I’ve seen pictures of the fancy theatres and other amenities in the other schools in town. You pay for it—most of the best run just under $30,000/year.

But, that’s the thing about the expat lifestyle. You don’t pay for it. Your company does. Along with a spacious and well-appointed home, a cook, nanny, driver, etc. Expats get to live large in Shanghai—and China, more generally. The standard of living for expats is very high—much higher than almost all would enjoy back in the US, or whatever country they’re from.

Bumping up against this all the time, one is certain to wonder on occasion: could I live the expat lifestyle in Shanghai?

Now, this is purely hypothetical for us, since our employers have no work for us to do for them here and, if they did, being taxpayer-funded, public universities, I’m not sure they’d really provide all the perks (so, stop freaking out, family and friends; we’re coming home, don’t worry). But, it’s still interesting to consider.

On the one hand, it would be nice. Shanghai has all the amenities of a major international city, and enjoying it with an entire household staff, a palatial manse and some of the best educational institutions for our kids would be awfully attractive.

But, I think I would not want to, even if the opportunity arose. There are several reasons why. First, I like where I live. Dartmouth is the perfect place to have a home and raise a family. And I wouldn’t want to be so far from family and friends on a permanent basis.

But, even if that weren’t a consideration, I’m not sure I’d do it. For one, I don’t think I could live in Shanghai. I’m not sure I could get over the basic lack of courtesy and politeness one encounters on a daily basis here. Many times a day my internal indignation meters goes off (this afternoon, a father and his son go up from their seats on a crowded metro train and left their two cups of yogurt and assorted papers on the seat behind them, leaving them unusable; this kind of behavior happens all the time). I prefer my daily experience of other people to be a bit more refined and civil. Shanghai grates on my nerves.

Another issue for me is the identity of my children. What I would worry about is the creation of third-culture children—kids who embrace neither their home culture nor the culture in which they reside. Apparently, this is an issue that arises a lot among expats who live abroad for extended periods. While I definitely want my kids to appreciate and sympathize with other cultures, I also want them to be Americans. They are Americans. Heck, it’s too late for them to be anything else, even if we wanted them to be. And I believe it’s important for them to have and maintain that identity (and, when they grow up, shape what that identity means for the entire society, if only in some small way—though I have high expectations, of course).

The other day, Quin said to me, “you know, Dad, we’ve been here so long, I feel like I’m Chinese as much as I’m American!” Now, he was joking, but his comments made me consider how quickly kids pick up the cultural cues around them. From the ability to use chopsticks to the use of Cantonese slang, the boys have absorbed a lot while they’ve been here (though, unfortunately, not the famous Chinese deference to authority). In three years, the length of the standard expat contract, what would they be like? They would have spent one-quarter or more of their lives in China. They would be, in some sense, Chinese, right?

I have to conclude that a year is about the maximum one can be out of the country before the kids start to slide toward that third culture. So, despite the undeniable allures of the expat lifestyle, I’d be ready to go home now, even if we could stay.