Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Shanghai: Apartment Hunting

Fact #1: There are many posts online advertising seemingly perfect (well-furnished, well-priced, well-located) apartments in Shanghai. Those posts are often bait to get people to contact a particular agent.  Do not expect said furnishings, prices, or locations to reflect reality.

Fact #2: Unless you're working with an agent who specializes in settling expats, be prepared to converse in Mandarin.

Fact #3: Real estate agents in Shanghai are extremely localized.  I figured we could talk to one agency about apartments across Shanghai.  Not so much.

A friend drove us to different areas of the city, where we'd scan the streets for a real estate agent's sign.  The rule was simple: no agents = no apartments for rent.  Agents = apartment(s) available.  Each agent would tell us about the three apartments in their little area before sending us on to the next neighborhood.

Fact #4: As a landlord, muttering "You won't be back.  You can't afford this place" to prospective renters is not a good sales tactic.  Even if your three bedroom apartment with nice hardwood floors and fantastic views is in our price range (it was), we won't come back.

Fact #5: Kitchens in China often don't have ovens.  I'm still pondering this development.  The apartments also typically don't have dryers.

In the end, we found a home for the next year.  It is located close to B.'s work and near a metro stop, close to the Western conveniences of the French concession but not in an area dominated by Westerners.  It has two bedrooms (visitors welcome!) and is across from a park.  Last time we meandered through the park, we saw basketball (I think that's the real reason B. liked the apartment so much), water calligraphy, chinese chess, tai chi, and badminton.

Signing our lease was an exercise in cultural differences.  The lease for our apartment in England was nearly as long as my dissertation.  In China, it's two pages -- which includes the text in both Chinese and English.  A few signatures, a handshake, a pile of cash.  That was it.

Stay tuned for photos once we've moved in in January.

Monday, December 17, 2012


I've never properly appreciated phonetic alphabets until now.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Foods of China: Part I

I'll start this series with the caveat that I'm not typically a photographer of food.  That's a content note (and perhaps also a skill note) -- at most meals, my camera stays at home or on the floor.  What you see here are things that were particularly delicious, outlandish, or just happened to get captured.

The Chinese Breakfast Burrito (jian bing guo zi)

The "Chinese Breakfast Burrito" may not be its official name, but it definitely gets the idea across.  A thin crepe is topped with an egg, green onions, cilantro, pickled vegetables, and chili sauce and wrapped around a crispy fried dough cracker.  Rhymthically prepared by street vendors in under a minute.

Candied Fruit (bīngtáng húlù)

A popular street snack.  Various fruits -- most commonly little apples, mandarin orange slices, and/or grapes -- are skewered and dipped in sugar syrup, which hardens into a shiny candy coating.  Like the American version of candy apples, but miniaturized and less caramel-y.

Eggplant (qie zi)

While I don't have any accompanying photos, I've eaten a lot of eggplant-based dishes in Shanghai ("qie zi", pronounced "chi-ed-zah".  We say "cheese!" for photos; the Chinese say "eggplant!").


B. often opts for the strangest food possible, hence the above acquisition from a bakery.  What exactly is it?  We're not quite sure.  It involved a dark-colored, seaweed-containing, unexpectedly sweet roll topped with copious amounts of pork floss.  Not a winning combination.

Hot Pot (huǒ guō)

A large communal pot of simmering broth to which uncooked foods (vegetables, tofu, meat, fish balls, noodles) are added over the course of the meal.  Once cooked, the food is fished out and eaten, often with various dipping sauces.  It's a social activity and an easy way to feed a group of people, hence its popularity.

B.'s description of hot pot: ultimate deliciousness.

My description of hot pot: a minefield of foods I don't eat, which too often results in vegetables coated in meat fat.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Shanghai: Tourist Sights

The Bund -- Shanghai's skyline

Photo credit to Steven Piepgras Lyager We didn't bring a camera with us.

Yuyuan Garden 

Five acres of ponds, peaks, and pavilions constructed in the late 1500s.

Undulating "dragon walls" separate the different areas

Priceless bonsai furniture

Shanghai Museum and People's Square

The museum has numerous galleries, including displays of ancient Chinese bronze, sculpture, ceramics, calligraphy, coins, paintings, as well as a section on Russian Faberge eggs.

Jing'an Temple

A large, ancient Buddhist temple

Nestled in the heart of downtown Shanghai 

Monday, December 10, 2012

Shanghai: General Orientation

Since Shanghai will be "home" for the next period, I thought I'd start with some generalities.

China is a big country.  Its size and range of climates rivals that of the US, so I keep comparing locations to places I know.  (That may not seem like a revolutionary statement, but for people from European countries that you can drive around in a day, the scale is difficult to grasp.)  Weather-wise, Shanghai is a bit like DC.

Shanghai is split into two parts: Pudong and Puxi (“pu-shi”).  They’re east (“dong”) and west (“xi”) of the river (the Huangpu River) that bisects the city.  From what I’ve seen in person and read online, most interesting things happen in Puxi.  Pudong contains the towering financial district, the pharmaceutical park, the suburbs.  Puxi, the historic center, has downtown, the Bund (a walk along the river which looks out at the skyline – the financial district), People’s Square, the Shanghai Museum, the French concession, the universities, etc.  Thus far, I’ve spent nearly all of my time in Puxi.

Shanghai isn’t nearly as crowded as I thought it would be.  My only previous experience with Asia was in Hong Kong, where B. lived in Jordan – one of the densest places on the planet.  Instead, Shanghai has a lot of people spread across a big city, with big roads and big sidewalks.  I have yet to feel crowded.

Shanghai’s roads are terrifying.  There are tons of cars and buses and taxis.  The traffic rules seem to be mere suggestions, and they use their horns more than New Yorkers do.  There’s an equally large swarm of bikes, electric bikes, and mopeds.  They function as part-pedestrian (honking at people to get out of the way on the sidewalks), part-vehicle (everywhere on the roads), and, as far as I can tell, the only rule they follow is “don’t get killed”.   Even that rule gets violated with alarming frequency.

How about the food?  I’m something of a picky vegetarian, which is my shorthand way of saying that I eat what I like, and I happen to not-like things that taste and/or texture like meat.  Chicken soup is fine, as is, say, beef with broccoli (so long as I can pick out the beef).  Mushrooms and certain textures of tofu are not.  I wasn’t sure how China would feed me.  So far, the answer has been overwhelmingly well.  Ironically, my biggest challenge has been at the vegetarian restaurants, where they specialize in convincing “meat” and “seafood” mimics and mushroom-based dishes.  

Shanghai, like many big cities, is what you make of it.  They have everything from local Chinese food and markets, to Coldstone Creamery and Marks and Spencer, to glitzy malls full of Gucci and Prada.  Things used by the locals are cheap – a subway ride costs about fifty cents, a 10-minute cab ride costs 2-3 dollars.  Things meant for the expats are expensive – at least what I’d expect to pay in England, if not (much, much) more.  And all those luxury goods?  Despite the fact that they’re made in China and bought by the (wealthier) locals, they’re super expensive.  The name brands cost significantly more here than in the US or UK.

It’s possible to work for a big western company, live in an expat community, shop in expat stores, party in expat bars/clubs, and have an entirely western life in Shanghai.  At the other end, most of Shanghai's residents live a very Chinese life.  It’s a spectrum, and I imagine our place on it will shift as my Mandarin skills improve. 

The Sun Rises in the East

I wonder sometimes about the Age of Exploration.  How it must have felt to sail off with a primitive map of the world in your head and, well, run into America instead of India.

We live in an age where Google Maps lets us peer down on nearly any place on Earth (even if, occasionally, it gets things wrong).  Where we can consume innumerable photos and books and blogs about new destinations, sample food from around the world in our hometowns, and talk to people anywhere for free (thanks Skype!).  The internet lets us see the world from home, and lets us see home from the world.  The world is much smaller than it used to be.

And yet, when I travel to a new place, it still feels like uncovering a new part of my map.  For a year, we talked about moving to Shanghai (or Beijing, or Hong Kong, or Tokyo. It was a confusing period), and I drew a picture of Shanghai in my head based on the stories of others.  But I didn't really know what Shanghai meant.  What it would feel like to stand on its streets, shop in its grocery stores*, talk to its people.  What life there would look like.

For those of you back home, here's a glimpse of Shanghai through my lens.  To really experience it, come visit!

View from the financial district on a foggy day

A mixture of old and new, near Yuyuan Garden

Playing ultimate frisbee under the watchful gaze of General Mao

*I really enjoy checking out things like grocery stores in new places.  Glimpses of normal life.  In China, for example, many types of body wash advertise their skin whitening effects, while the fruit stands offer cheap, delicious fruits that we never see in the US.