Thursday, May 31, 2012

Traveling with the boys

Traveling with kids can be a hard slog. But I’ve found that where you are can really affect how hard that slog seems to be. Some destinations accentuate the positive, and some destinations highlight the negative. For us, I think destinations that allow us to be outdoors and active are the ones that work the best, so we’ve been enjoying Yangshuo tremendously. After a slight delay with our flight on Saturday, we were welcomed to our hotel with a round of fresh orange juices on the side of the Yulong river; we supplemented those drinks with some food and beers for us (alcohol also seems to help accentuate the positive of parenting) to put us just in the right mood. 

We dropped some stuff off in our room, then headed out for a beautiful hike among spectacular karst peaks and hidden caves.

After some exploring, we went into town for Indian food. On Sunday, we spent the day biking up along the Yulong river, then caught bamboo rafts to drift back down to the resort.

Afterwards, we caught a shuttle into town for some veggie burgers and pizza.

These first two days in Yangshuo have made me realize one thing I’ve come to appreciate about traveling with the boys is how eager they are for adventure. Spurred on by their eagerness, we’ve explored unmarked caves, farmers’ paths off into the wilderness and single track trails through rice paddies. We’ve taken detours into little villages and followed unmarked paths based on the suggestions of random strangers (total surprise of this trip: our pidgin Chinese plus many locals pidgin English means we can accomplish some basic conversations).

To the boys’ great delight, we’ve also seen water buffalo galore – the boys rode one at a local attraction, we saw one bathing, and Berkley even almost got run off the path into a rice paddy by one.

They’ve also been fascinated by the rice paddies – it’s now planting season, so we’ve seen a lot of work being done, both by humans and those water buffalos – and the boys love to stop to take this all in. We’ve also seen some not so wonderful things, like a dog being butchered on the side of the road. Through it all, the boys have bitched and moaned and whined and complained – a little. I mean – I’d be lying if I said they were spectacular the whole time. But really, they have been game for just about anything.

And for that I am grateful because Yangshuo is spectacular. Several of our friends have been here and raved about it, so I was worried it wouldn’t live up to the hype. I shouldn’t have worried. It’s all that and more. We can get off the beaten path and feel like we’re the only people in the world, aside from the local villagers (and by village – I mean actual village as some “villages” in China can have over 100,000 people). Yet at the same time, we can go into town and experience backpacker heaven (meaning good, cheap, Western eats and beer). When I envisioned what our travels in China would be like, this was really it – astonishing karst peaks, locals working the rice patties with their water buffalo, the whole nine yards. To be honest, I thought there’d be a lot more dragging of the boys along, kicking and screaming. Instead, they’ve risen to the occasion and taken the lead, and I couldn’t be more happy to be experiencing this journey with them (then again, that may just be those beers I consumed talking).

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Easy Button of China

As our time abroad draws to an end, I find myself thinking more and more about our experiences. And the more I think about it, the more I’ve come to the conclusion that Shanghai is the easy button of China. There are a lot of thoughts in my brain about this. I’d love to organize them into some coherent post, but time is running short (we leave early tomorrow morning for vacation), and I can’t seem to bring them all together in some pithy way. So, here’s a list of observations that have led me to this conclusion:
  • I got my hair cut the other day at a salon that has locations in Rome, Florence, New York and Miami in addition to Shanghai. I got a glorious blowout (hey – it is Asia after all, and they do straight hair REALLY well here) after my cut while listening to the Police and Bob Marley and reading Wallpaper magazine.
  • After an event at the U.S. Consulate, we went out to eat with my Fulbright colleague James Ryan and his wife Renee, who are in Nanjing. While they have access to Western products in the supermarket, they noted they certainly don’t have the kind of brew pubs that we have in Shanghai (Doug and I actually had a debate over which one was closer as there were two within walking distance of the consulate). And Renee couldn’t think of a Starbucks in Nanjing, while I know there are three within walking distance of our apartment alone.
  • I received an email from my colleague Maria, who is with her family in Xian. While she said they’ve had a great time, she noted that it’s been somewhat tough on her youngest child, a girl who is the same age at Quin. Right after I got that note, we left for the Festival of the Arts at our boys’ school, where the boys ran wild with their friends (in between making art projects) and where Berkley brought down the house with his “free-style hip- hop dance routine.” The boys love their school, and so do we. Really, if we could magically move it to Dartmouth, we would in a heartbeat (not that we don’t love DeMello!). It’s just a great, great school.
  • I spent a few days lecturing in Chongqing. Don’t get me wrong - my trip there was lovely. I got to see some of the sights, and the lectures were well received by the inquisitive students who treated me like a rock star (there was a line of students waiting to take their picture with me after the first lecture!). The hosts were great, I had a wonderful student serve as my interpreter, and the food was spicy and amazing (my favorite [see picture below]– a tofu dish that involved basically making your own sauce from a choice of over 30 different ingredients, including salt, sugar, soy, etc. but most importantly many, many kinds of hot sauces. Mmmm – so good). But as I perused the aisle in the grocery store near the Southwest University campus out in the Beibei district of Chongqing, I couldn’t help but notice the “Western” section in the grocery store was about as tall and wide as me – meaning not so big. In contrast, we can get just about anything we want here – Mac and Cheese, Goldfish, Morningstar Farms sausages; it may be outrageously expensive, but at least we can have that stuff as a treat from time to time. It would be a no go almost anywhere else in China. 
  • I read a blog post from another one of my Fulbright colleagues noting how much she and her family loved Hong Kong. Don’t get me wrong – we LOVED Hong Kong too, but Shanghai almost seems easier than Hong Kong, in part because we’re much more centrally located here. We definitely do miss the outdoor activities in Hong Kong (which is why we’re looking forward to Yangshuo so much), but the urban part of Shanghai may be easier than the urban part of Hong Kong.
Of course, it’s not all peaches and cream here. For example, the other day we got stuck in one of those insane Chinese traffic jams, caused by a (clearly) very important wedding as there was a Rolls Royce serving as a limo. As the traffic worsened, wedding guests started abandoning their BMWs, Mercedes, and the ubiquitous Audis left and right, leading to almost total chaos. It was China in a nutshell. But of course, we got stuck in this traffic jam on our way to Mr. Pancake, which served chocolate chip pancakes so rich that Quin couldn’t even finish them. So even with the bad, there is a lot of good.

In the end, what I’ve come to is that we’ve been VERY, VERY lucky to be placed in Shanghai. It’s true that we’re probably getting more of an expat experience here than a true local experience, but after our time in Hong Kong, that’s just what we all needed. And while I’m definitely looking forward to coming home, I’m going to miss the wealth of choices at our fingertips here in the most cosmopolitan of all Chinese cities.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

More Thoughts on Language

I feel like I’m getting better at speaking in Mandarin. I’ve expanded my vocabulary a bit, and my pronunciation has improved. However, overall I’m still pretty bad at it. At best, I speak in a kind of pidgin Chinese. For instance, I wanted to show a picture of my triathlon bike to the local sidewalk bike-mechanic guy, who’s done some work on my bike and is very friendly. Translated literally, I said, “my bike…America…race.” Not very graceful, but he understood and appreciated what I was communicating to him.

While just getting the point across is great, I long for that effortless fluency some of my expat friends here have attained. Getting into a taxi in Guangzhou, I gave the name of the hotel to the driver in Mandarin: hua yuan jiu dian. He looked at me and asked, “Garden Hotel?” I wasn’t sure whether to be happy he understood me so well or disappointed it was so clear to him that I would rather be speaking English.

Fluency would be helpful for hearing as well as speaking. While in Guangdong I went out for meals many times with groups of native-Chinese speakers who were also fluent in English. When they had something specific to say to me, they would of course speak English. But sometimes, when talking amongst themselves about matters they assumed were of no interest to me, they’d revert to Mandarin. It was very isolating. It made me realize how much conversations revolve around unplanned connections and digressions. Sure, they might be talking about a common acquaintance I don’t know, but I might have heard the name of the university at which he works and then asked about that and then the conversation moves in a new direction. Those dynamics are impossible when you are linguistically excluded.

It can be the case, however, that learning a new language makes life more complicated. Chinese speakers have a funny way of adding verbal-stall sounds to their speech. Instead of “uh” or “um,” many use a word I’ve seen translated into pinyin as “nei ge.” So, you often hear people talking and they add “nei ge, nei ge, nei ge” in the middle of a sentence (“zhe ge” is also used). We were talking about this with the boys and they started to use it, just for fun. That precipitated a conversation about the whopper racial slur in the US, which “nei ge” sounds a lot like. We wanted to make sure the boys didn’t develop a habit, imported back to the US, of walking around saying “nei ge, nei ge” all the time.

Sometimes, though, despite my best efforts, my Chinese skills break down completely. Fortunately, humans are pretty crafty about communicating without a common language. I’ve written before about my favorite bao zi stand, where I pick up breakfast many mornings. I figured out how to order two vegetable bao zi—liang ge cai bao zi—and that’s been my regular order.

However, I’ve been eyeing the spicy rice noodle bao zi, and decided to try it. The overhead menu has the Chinese characters and the English translation, so I decided to decipher. Looking at the characters and hunting for the words in my dictionary, I found the character for spicy—la— on the menu, but the characters I looked up for rice (mi fan) and noodle (mian) were not the ones on the menu. Apparently, the English wasn’t an exact translation of the Chinese.

I went for it anyway, translating the English back into Chinese: la mi fan mian bao zi. No dice; she had no idea what I wanted. But, I think she likes me—her regular lao wai customer—so she tried to work with me on it. Her strategy: suggest I count down from the top of the menu to find the number corresponding to the item. Perfect. It was the fifth item. Holding up five fingers would have scored me the right bun, despite my failed Chinese. But, I tried to salvage some linguistic dignity. I replied “wu” (five). The bao zi was delicious.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Catching Up...

Sorry for the lack of blog posting, but when we’ve been in town, we’ve mostly been laying low. Shanghai doesn’t have all that many cool and fascinating things to see, so much of our time has been spent hanging out and exploring neighborhoods:

Or doing normal things like attending school related events:

This past Saturday, for example, we met up with the Bournes (who we met on the Ningbo trip). They introduced us to a cool new neighborhood (to which we returned on Mother’s Day for some shopping and a fabulous lunch – the cocktails were to die for) and then had us over to their spectacular house. Let me just say – if their home is any representation of what the expat lifestyle is, you could easily sign me up. We also had a bunch of boys over in the afternoon for Berkley’s birthday. If the morning exposed us to the highs of the expat lifestyle, then the afternoon exposed us to the lows as several of the boys were not very happy with our low key, Dartmouth style birthday (read – lots of running around and hanging out).

Of course, we have still managed to explore some of the sights of Shanghai during our down time here; we visited a few art museums in People’s Park. While there, we also got to witness the marriage mart, where parents of unmarried children hang out with bio sheets (few pictures though) and attempt to arrange for a future mate for their offspring. Totally fascinating and great for inducing good behavior in the boys – don’t do that or we’ll take your info over to the mart and find you a bride!

We also visited some Shanghai Expo (held in 2010) related sites, including the site from the main event (a total ghost town now):

 and a sculpture park that was created for the event (much livelier - probably due to the fact it was much more interesting!).

My favorite place of those we’ve recently visited was the Natural History Museum. Opened in the early 1970s, it was probably the pride and joy of the post-Cultural Revolution Shanghai. It also probably hasn’t been touched since, lending a wonderful air of general creepiness – think dim lighting, peeling paint and strange displays. It also illustrated how the Chinese haven’t quite fully grasped capitalism, as the interesting looking gift shop closed before the museum actually did – the boys were quite disappointed.

The boys’ favorite place we’ve recently visited would probably be the World Financial Center. China is a land of superlatives (everything is the tops for something– biggest, fastest, longest are favorites), and this was no exception as it had the world’s highest observation deck. Complete with glass floors, it afforded stunning views of both buildings and the streets.

Aside from soaking in Shanghi, we’ve also spent a lot of our normal blogging time nailing down our final trips for our last two months here (hard to believe that’s all we have left!). As we’ve mentioned before, we’ll be spending 5 days in Yangshuo staying at the Yangshuo Mount Retreat at the end of May. Then, we’ll hang here for a while my mother visits and the boys finish school (and Doug and I furiously try to finish off some research), after which we depart for a one week trip to the Sichuan province. We’ll spend some time exploring the sights around Chengdu (including hopefully the world’s tallest Buddha statue and the biggest panda center in China) before moving on to Jiuzhaigou, one of China’s largest national parks (note all those superlatives in that sentence!). We’re particularly excited as we’ve arranged a home stay in a local village (take a moment to check out this link - it's a YouTube video from a Lonely Planet correspondent who stayed in this home) while we’re near the park. We’ll come back to Shanghai for a week to pack up and make arrangements before heading off on our last hurrah –two weeks in Vietnam and Cambodia, with a brief stopover in Kuala Lumpur on the way back. As you can imagine, all of this traveling has involved extensive logistical planning. I know – cry me a river; I mention this simply to excuse the lack of posting.

Things will probably be slow here for the next few days as there’s not much going on, then I’m off to Chongqing on Sunday for a couple of lectures. If all goes well, I’ll get at least some fodder for the blog, but hopefully it won’t be as eventful as my last lecture trip. Wish me luck!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Berkley's Birthday

Hongmei Pedestrian Street.  In China, brown sign = of interest to foreigners. This one actually means Foreigner Street

Sunday was Berkley’s birthday. After driving back from our Ningbo outing that morning, we gave him the choice of lunch. He picked sushi. Nice call, Berk. I mentioned this to our friend from Japan, Mayumi, whose kids share our bus stop. Next day she gave us a bamboo sushi rolling mat, sushi rice seasoning and seaweed sheets. How nice! She and her daughters also got Berkley a birthday present. Good people.

Dinner was also Berkley’s decision, and he delivered with more evidence we’re raising him right: Shanghai Brewery. Of course, the beer isn’t the attraction for him but rather the pizza and amazing fries, and its location on the Hongmei pedestrian street. This is one of the expat centers of gravity in Shanghai, with dozens of bars and restaurants serving a variety of world cuisines. Most have extensive outdoor seating. It’s a fun scene. Next to Shanghai Brewery is another restaurant with a little playground and kids running amok. Berkley wandered across, found a friend from school and had a blast. It even made up for the fact that their pizza didn’t get made, then got made wrong, and finally arrived almost an hour-and-a-half after we ordered it. No problem for Shannon and me: it facilitated more consumption of their excellent beer.

Disliking cake, Berkley chose a Dairy Queen sundae.  We sang; Chinese people stared.

In order to give him a true birthday celebration, we yanked them out of school on Monday and took them to the Happy Valley amusement park. We rode some world-class rides and roller coasters there; clearly the Chinese do engineering well.

Where they fall short is customer experience. Many rides didn’t open until afternoon. Concessions closed before 5:00, even though the park was open until 7:30 (our efforts to secure soft serve failed).

Line management was baffling. A typical ride would work like this: First, everyone would disembark the roller coaster. But, before they’d open the exit gate, they’d let everyone gather up in a mass (this proved troubling when someone starting barfing as we waited to exit the Diving Coaster). After opening the exit gate, they’d let everyone leave the ride area. Then, and only then, would they let people from the entry line into the little corrals to enter the roller coaster cars. After a pause—and in one case, warm-up exercises—people would load. Then, after instructions, the ride would finally start. And, making it worse, there was always only one set of cars. So, it would typically take 4-5 minutes to complete the cycle for a ride that might last 30 seconds. Fortunately, the park was quite empty, it being a school day, so we rarely waited very long. But the inefficiencies were still mind-boggling. On a busy day, it must be explosively frustrating!

The Mongolian horse show was impressive.  In back is part of the wicked-fun Diving Coaster.

Soaked after the water ride.

Berkley, despite being a big, 8-year old kid now, still hasn’t embraced the most intense rides. His first ride was on this giant, rotating pendulum. He went alone, as Shannon and Quin were in line for a ride Berkley was too short to ride and I was wise enough to realize it would make me hurl big time, Dramamine notwithstanding. He came off looking stoic enough, as he waited at the exit gate for everyone to line up, but when he got to me he broke down. “I wish I never went on that ride!” he cried to me. Luckily, Happy Valley had a great collection of mid-level rides and roller coasters, so he was able to find plenty of options that were thrilling but not too scary.

(photo credit to


We do have one more birthday celebration in the works. This Saturday, he’s having a few friends from school over to our apartment for a little party. It’s great that he has friends to invite; in Hong Kong, it would have been more of a play date than a party. He does miss all his friends and family from home, though. So, sing a round of Happy Birthday for him. And eat some cake. Or Dairy Queen.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Going with the flow

As many of you know, I am a planner. Generally speaking I like to map things out - even more so when we travel; while I don’t have to know what we’re going to be doing every minute of the day, I’m pretty organized when it comes to flights, hotels, sights and the like. So if there’s one thing that being in China has taught me, it’s to go with the flow. I’ve become really laid back about my classes, my lectures and now traveling. And what I’ve learned over this semester is that sometimes going with the flow really pays off, as it did this weekend.

It all started when the International Exchange office here on campus invited us to go on a weekend trip on the 5th-6th to Tengtou, a Chinese eco-village. While it might not have been a place we would have chosen ourselves or a time frame we would have picked (as Berkley’s birthday was the 6th), we decided to throw caution to the wind and say yes (after a bribe of a promised day off school visit to an amusement park the day after Berkley’s birthday – more on that in my next post).  We weren’t really sure what we were getting into; important details like where we were going, who was going, etc. were all a mystery to us.

Right away, things got all China on us. For about two weeks, we heard nothing about the trip, until I received a flurry of texts about the trip (how many hotel rooms did we need? What were our passport numbers?), all of which needed immediate responses. Finally, on the Wednesday before we were supposed to leave, I got an email saying we should go to a certain spot at 9:30 am on Friday. Uh – Friday? We’re supposed to be leaving on Saturday, but okay. Now, we could have freaked out and said no – we’re not taking the kids out of school for another day, but we didn’t. So we boarded the bus with no idea of where we were going or what we were doing, but up for an adventure. And in the end, it was a really fun adventure.

First, we were so happy when we arrived at the appointed time to see that there were other families on the trip. And best of all - there were two girls about the same age as the boys who soon became fast friends with Quin and Berkley. Talia and Nina reminded me a lot of Catherine and Claire from Hong Kong – two sweet girls who could hang with the boys. We soon learned that the Bournes are from Marblehead, MA and spend the entire summer there; we’ve already made plans to get together again in Shanghai soon and in Dartmouth this summer. They’re really a great family, and we enjoyed spending the weekend with them.

The itinerary was much better than expected too. We ended up spending both nights in Ningbo which a complete surprise to us and a good one at that; I've since learned from the linked Wiki page that Ningbo is one of the oldest cities in China. The hotel was pretty spectacular (we were expecting far more modest digs aimed at budget Chinese tourists), and we had two large rooms with massive bathrooms. We spent Friday afternoon/evening in the city visiting the local sights. We saw an old compound; we were so go with the flow I had to look at the Ningbo Wikipedia entry to learn its name (the Tianyi Museum, built in the 1500s and said to be the oldest surviving library in China).

On Saturday, we got to escape from the city. We visited a monastery (actually fairly new - less than 10 years old, but stunning nonetheless) with a spectacular 56m+ Buddha; our guide claimed it was made entirely of bronze, but I still really can’t believe that’s true.

We visited a beautiful waterfall and then finally hit Tengtou – where we thought we would be spending the entire trip.

It wasn’t quite what we expected (we were thinking some remote village out in the countryside), but it was still really fun. We were able to rent tandem bikes and explore the gorgeous scenery with the Bournes. We came across a small Buddhist monastery and listened to the monks chanting. Some strawberry picking (in an eco-village – probably the cleanest fruit we’ve had the entire time we’ve been in China) capped off a lovely day.

When we returned on Sunday, even the boys said the weekend was really great.  In the end then, I’ve learned that while there is a lot to be said for making plans, there are times and places where just letting go and seeing where life takes you can be just as enjoyable. We’re really grateful we did this weekend.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Children in China

Recently I was asked about my observations on mothering in China. To that I have to respond – what observations? Honestly, one of the things that has struck me is really how few children we see here in Shanghai; as a result, I can't say much about mothering in China, parenting in China or even just being a kid in China. When we’re out and about, the children are few and far between. Furthermore, the kids we do see tend to be very young (say preschool age and younger) or older, high school kids (although these are pretty rare too). In thinking about it, I’ve come up with three potential explanations.

1) The obvious one is the one-child policy here in China. First implemented in 1979, we’re starting to get around to the point where the first generation born under this policy is reproducing. While it was intended to only be a one-generation policy, the Chinese government has indicated that the policy will remain in effect until at least 2015. If you think about it then, it’s like a giant funnel, with each child supporting two parents and four grandparents (the four-two-one problem). Since implementation, it is estimated this policy has prevented approximately 350-400 million births – that’s the entire population of the United States! While the Chinese government claims that just 35.9% of China’s population is covered by this policy (there are exceptions for the SARs and ethnic minorities among others), it seems to be that almost every person I’ve talked to that has one child wants another. These people I’ve spoken to are well educated, and many are actively considering trying to move to the U.S. or other countries so they can have that second child.

Really, I could go on and on talking about this policy, but suffice it to say, it severely depresses the number of children in China. But, as I talk to people around here, I also think there are other factors at play, which leads me to my second and third potential explanations.

2) The National Higher Education Exam, a.k.a. the gaokao, is also partly to blame, I think. This test is a requirement for entrance to university in China. Scores on this exam (and pretty much scores alone) determine if and where you will go to college and what your major will be. There are more students who want to get into university than there are seats, so the pressures surrounding the gaokao are enormous. The exam takes 2-3 days and covers not only Chinese and Math, but also a foreign language (usually English), three sciences (Physics, Chemistry, and Biology), and three humanities (History, Geography and Political Education) - although I understand students typically either take the three sciences or the three humanities. Given the high stakes, pressure starts early and I mean REALLY early, like primary school days. Once you hit primary school, you’re expected to be hitting the books. In fact, most students take school after school, in the afternoon and on the weekends. So, if you’re studying that hard, you don’t really have time to play or even just be outside (although once you've taken the test, you're home free which is why I think we've seen some groups of high school kids around). Pretty sad, but with the fate of many people (see above) resting on your shoulders, the pressure on these kids to perform is enormous.

3) Finally, it is increasingly common these days for villagers to leave their children behind, typically in the care of their grandparents, when they come to the city to look for work. This is partly due to the fact that these parents can’t afford to care for their child given the work they will secure in the city and the cost of living. But it’s also due to the fact that in China, services are tied to residency permits (the hokou system) – no permit, no services (including education and health care). And it’s VERY difficult to change your household registration from your home village to somewhere else. According to one estimate, approximately 58 million (yes – that’s MILLION) children have been left behind by at least one parent searching for work. More than half of those children were left by both parents – that’s 29 million children! In fact, one of the women who works at the university here is in this situation. And let me tell you – it’s really strange talking to her about it. While I assumed she would be devastated, it just seems normal to her. When I mentioned that at least she would get to raise her child’s child, she said that she didn’t want to do that. It was as if she was completely disconnected from the job of parenting.

I’m sure there are other causes. For instance, one of the faculty members here said she wouldn’t let her one child play outside because it was too dangerous. I suppose when you only have one child, you’re going to be really concerned about the safety of that child. Regardless, when we’re out, we rarely see Chinese kids that are the same age as the boys when we go out – they’re either not born, back in the village, or inside studying. As a social scientist and a parent, I find the subject fascinating – it’s a vast policy experiment, the effects of which (both positive and negative) will be felt for years to come.