Monday, May 13, 2013

Shanghai - The Return

I am back in China!  It was a long, arduous flight involving two layovers (New Orleans-Miami-London-Shanghai), two delays, twenty-five drunk French teenagers, a fat/drunk British wino, a full flight, and a middle seat.  However, I am here now and have been here for three days, though the amount of things that have happened in that time make it seem much longer.

On Saturday, the day after I arrived, there was a protest outside of our apartment complex.  A man was out front setting off fireworks for over an hour.  People were yelling (not chanting) and the police came.  It was very different than American protests, conflicts, and police interactions.  I, of course, had no clue why this was happening or even what was happening.  I actually didn't think much of it because I couldn't see what was happening, and people are always setting off fireworks randomly in New Orleans.  One of my Chinese classmates shed some light on the situation for us non-Mandarin speakers-- the owner of the apartment building also owns a local driving range where one of his workers committed suicide last month.  The family feels that they are owed additional restitution payments.  This was their way of putting pressure on the company.  For China,  it's not an uncommon way to behave in this type of situation.  While this company does have insurance, the insurance industry here is not nearly as developed as it is in the U.S. so I don't know that they're going to get much beyond what they've already gotten, especially considering he committed suicide and was not killed due to the job.

The protest

Hello, London

Hello, China

I am here for graduate school, getting an international MBA through Boston University.  This is a one-year program.  I will be in China until mid-August, then we go back to Boston for the remaining fall and spring semesters.  There are 27 of us in the program, and only 7 Americans.  The other 20 are from all over the world-- Mexico, Chile, Peru, Israel, Germany, Thailand, China, Taiwan, and India are the countries represented that I can remember off the top of my head.  My two flatmates are from Hong Kong and Thailand.  As a whole, my classmates are extremely engaging, intelligent, and focused.  It's so nice to be back in school.  I appreciate the mental stimulation and opportunities that a university provides so much more this time around. 

There are three main differences that I have noticed between 2013 and 2007, my last time in Shanghai:

1) My life is immensely easier due to technology this time around.  Smartphones were only just starting to become popular in the US, and they were rather expensive (or, at least, they still had the sticker shock).  I had no cell phone at all last time I was here.  This time, I have an international text and data plan on my iPhone.  I have been able to look at the map, use Google Translate to go between English and Chinese, and text my friend when I couldn't find her house.  AMAZING. 

2) People are speaking much more freely.  I don't know if it's because of the different environment I'm in or that it's actually more open, but the discourse has already touched on all sorts of topics I did not discuss with anyone 6 years ago.

3) More cars.  Moooore cars.  Still more bicycles than cars, but more cars, and bigger cars.  All American-sized sedans!  Not just any cars, either-- NICE cars.  No one drives beaters here.  So many German luxury vehicles!

4) Security.  If you bring a bag on the subway now, it is searched and X-rayed.  It was not like this before.  It appears the Chinese are taking precautionary measures against the terrorist bombings that have happened in other countries.

5) Internet censorship.  Many, many more sites are now blocked.  I can surf freely due to the Boston University VPN but without it, I can't get on Gmail, Facebook, Blogger, or YouTube... among many others.

Many things are the same, of course.  Namely...

Mysteries!  Endless mysteries!  What am I eating?  Ketchup AND vinegar AND fish AND mushroom, you say?  Delicious! 

Best lane food

Mystery fruits and vegetables!

The assistant program director set up a dinner for us at a Shanghai restaurant on Saturday night.  This was the aftermath:

The next day, we were sent to the Shanghai Museum.  Saw a lot of wonderful things.  These were the highlights for me:


Buddhist sculptures

Chinese minority cultures displays

"Taiwanese boats, latter 20th century" - complete with soft ocean sounds playing in the background

Elaborate Tibetan masks

A huge amount of ancient (2000BC) bronze and jade works

Ming and Qing Dynasties furniture collections

We woke up to news of the 7th Ward Mothers' Day Second Line shooting in New Orleans today (see here).  About half of my classmates and professors knew of it already, which was a bit shocking to me.  I did not expect it to make the (inter)national news, I guess because, unfortunately, shootings in the 7th Ward are not unusual.  It really rehighlighted the differences between Chinese and American cultures for me.  I've lived in violent cities (Detroit, New Orleans) for the last six years.  You get used to being on edge and not knowing what's going to happen, exactly (or, at least, I do) and, most of all, WHO to look out for.  There is a sketchy swagger in the malicious, unstable, and/or wasted.  I knew that I would be able to lose some of that edge when I got here, and I have started to.  Shanghai is EXTREMELY safe.  Violent crime is virtually unheard of.  The tradeoff, of course, is what Americans would refer to as "freedom" and "civil liberties" and even "human rights."  I tried to imagine what would happen if NYC tried to institute bag searches on every subway rider at every stop as Shanghai now does.  The reaction would be riotous.

The requisite group photo op outside of the Shanghai Museum.  BU IMBA '13

After the museum on Sunday, I reconnected with a former coworker of mine from the Shanghai Talk days in 2007, Maggie!  She and her boyfriend were having a barbecue at their house.  They live in a super nice refurbished home in a traditional Shanghai lane.  Her boyfriend is German and she is Chinese.  The neighbors have plenty to talk about with the stream of foreigners that come to their home/office.

Mahjongg players outside Maggie's house

Maggie took me to the fish market near their home.  Some of the vendors were amused to see me there.  Fish heads in photo.

Best dog Lola, 3-year old BBQ guest Jake, and Maggie

We took Lola to the fish market with us and I learned something new about China-- a LOT of people are afraid of dogs.  In the few short blocks we walked, people, old people especially, jumped a mile and a half when this gentle golden retriever came around the corner!  It is extremely unusual to see such a large dog in China.  The Chinese people just do NOT like them at all.  Maggie and her other friend told many stories about being cussed out for having such a big, 'scary' dog.  An old woman went to the friend's dog and began kicking it and screaming at it just for sitting on the sidewalk.  Even if the people did not jump in fright as we passed them, many still took a wide berth and maintained a weary expression.  

Today after class, I braved the Carrefour near our apartments for the first time.  The grocery store truly offers mystery after mystery.  I recognize approximately 25% of the products.  The layout is totally different than American stores.  It seems like the food companies employ people to stand in the store and push you towards their products.  This was super annoying even though I had no idea what they were saying.  They were particularly aggressive when I hit the greens (romaine, arugula) and the olive oil.  On top of that, the Carrefour is also overstaffed.  SO MANY PEOPLE STOCKING!  I was practically tripping over them.  However... many people means a need for many jobs.  Shanghai's population is now 23 million.  This store had a foreign foods section, so I was able to find both black olives AND cheese, two things I thought I would be doing without for the next 3 months.  And these freakishly large items in the produce section:

WHAT.  Biggest carrots EVER.


Shanghai's title of BEST UMBRELLAS IN THE WORLD lives, mainly because the women like to stay pale and walk around with cute umbrellas all year, rain or shine.  My new love ($6.50):