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.

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