Saturday, April 19, 2008

Massages are all the rage here in Shanghai. There are parlors just about everywhere. You can get a massage in your motels, theres a place here in our compound and you can even get a masseuse delivered to your home. Everybody loves them, or so it seems.

Amy is a long time massage fan so she often goes and gets them. I've never really had a desire for one and have up until last night declined all offers for them. Last night our friends Laura and Thomas called wanting to get one. Amy agreed immediately, but I said no. Then Thomas brow-beated me and I reluctantly said "yes."

We went to a little shop down the road and contemplated which kind to get. They had full body massages, full body with oil, foot massages, head massages and all sorts of other things. I decided I would go all out and get a full body with oil.

It was a little weird at first stripping down to some little shorts they gave me and getting rubbed by a stranger, but it was ultimately nice. Very relaxing and invigorating even if the ladies thumbs were a little harsh.

Today though my back aches, and there are big bruises running up and down my shoulders.


Friday, April 18, 2008

The Things You See On the Road

Most mornings I take a walk around our big apartment complex. It isn't a marathon, but it is a nice little walk. Along the way I often see some odd little things, and I thought I'd do a little writing about it.

Parking, must like the general traffic is a bit of a mess around here. I'm sure somewhere there are like big parking lots, and suchlike, but I've ever seen them. Mostly you just see cars parked about everywhere. Shanghai actually does a great job of making bike lanes for the legions of two-wheeled people, but of course lots of the cars wind up parking there. Sidewalks too for that matter.

Anyways, the other day I am out on my walk and as usual there is a bit van parked on the sidewalk and I do the walk-around away from the street. On the sidewalk, next to the van is a big puddle of liquid. I look for a second to see what it, it's not that...yep it is.


Gross. You can tell by where it is that they van guy parked it, then stood next to the van to hide himself from traffic and let it flow. Now on my walks I often see public urinators. It isn't all that uncommon to see a taxi driver pull of the side of the road and go in the bushes. Their cab drivers so they spend their days in a car not near a bathroom, so I figure 'whatever' and never pay them much mind. But they go in the bushes. Not on the sidewalk.

Everyday I see the same group of workers messing with the sidewalks. The sidewalks are not straight concrete, but made up of these little 10 inch x 10 inch bricks. Next to the sidewalk, away from the road and in between the walls to our complex are various shrubs and flowers and grasses. Periodically around the sidewalk are trees too.

These workers are always doing something around there. Sometimes they are pulling weeds. Once they dug a little trench around the shrubs. Most often they are taking a little puddy knives and cleaning out the gunk between the individual bricks.

I have the most manicured sidewalks I have ever seen. None of the work they do really needs to be done, but there they are ever single day. That's actually slightly common in China. Whenever you go to a market or a restaurant or any store really it will always be over staffed. I've seen small kiosks in the mall filled with half a dozen workers.

At the corner market there are always 6 or more people working even though there really isn't much to do. Half of them sit around yacking to each other. I always assume it is some sort of government thing to make companies over hire. Like the population is so enormous that companies are asked to hire more people than they need so the unemployment rates won't be so high. Sometimes it is annoying because there are too many workers and they get in the way, but I think I'll take that over having the stores under staffed like you see so often in the States.

A few weeks ago on my walk I nearly saw an accident. I was next to a two lane highway that is quite heavily trafficked. The road has a very large shoulder where the buses pull off to make their pick ups, and on this road where bikers ride.

One of the buses pulled over to make a stop and then jammed itself back into traffic. Like I said it is a busy road and there were a couple of taxis speeding down the road just behind the bus. This bus, full of people and assuredly not a fast vehicle pulls right out in front of the taxis nearly taking them out. The first taxi instead of jamming his breaks, pulls to the left into oncoming traffic. Cars coming that way have to fling to the side of the road to not get hit.

Taxi #1 realizes the oncoming traffic is going to hit him so he then jams his breaks and slings behind the bus. Taxi #2 takes this moment to pass the first taxi and the bus, caring not that the oncoming traffic is there because they had moved out of the way of taxi #1.

The bus, taxis and oncoming traffic then all kept moving like nothing happened. All of this happened in about 5 seconds. It is such a typical thing that I don't think anyone else noticed. That's the way it is around here. People do crazy/stupid things so often that it is common place. Cab drivers are freaking race car drivers. They speed, they move in and out of traffic like mad, they jam the break and rev the engine simultaneously.

They make it work because everyone is used to it. I think if a Shanghai taxi driver moved to the States he'd either rule the world or immediately die from an accident. We just wouldn't know what to do with them.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Shanghai Diaries - The Madness of Crowds

My wife and I have decided to move back to the States for good in July. There are many reasons for this decision ranging from my lack of real career options to my wife's need to be somewhere where she'll actually finish her dissertation. It was a hard decision in some ways, but I must admit I'm really rather thrilled to be headed back. As we've now made the decision, I find myself looking forward to many of the conveniences that we'll have in the US, and being more irritated with things here in Shanghai.

One of these annoyances is with the people. No, not the individual people. I've found most of the Chinese to be pleasant, friendly, and kind. I've made many Chinese friends and I will miss them dearly. The people themselves are as interesting and varied as any people you'll find. It is not the individual people that bother me, but the collective – the en masse that proves bothersome. There are just so darn many of them.

I grew up in rural Oklahoma, in a town with fewer than 20,00 people. Since moving out I have lived in larger cities such as Joplin, Missouri; Montgomery, Alabama; and the whopping metropolis of Strasbourg, France (population 500,000.) That's a far cry from the 18 million odd people who live in Shanghai. Maybe those who live in places like New York or Chicago can grasp just how many people that is, but for this poor boy from Oklahoma it has been nothing less than eye-opening.

The masses are a bit like ants in a colony just after some kid has blown it to bits with an M-60. People are constantly moving in every direction. There might be some order buried in the chaos, but to an outsider it looks like crazed madness.

I live in the relative peace and quiet of the suburbs. The outer limits of the suburbs actually, and it is still overwhelming. There is never a time when there aren't hoards of people about. Shopping is the worst. We frequent Carefour a French-owned grocery store not too far from here and it is always "busting at the seams" crowded. Think about Wal-Mart on a Saturday or your favorite mall around the holidays, then triple it, and you have some idea - and that's during the off hours.

Shopping is a nightmare to me in the best of scenarios, and here it is always just shy of completely awful. Carefour has two main aisles running perpendicular to each other through the middle of the store. There is plenty of room in these aisles for loads of people. Still I always find myself behind some lolly-gaggers doing the Chinese stroll. They have a particular knack for slow, meandering walks that never fail to get in my way.

In the big aisles I'll get behind one of these strollers walking so slow grass is growing up under the feet. I try to pass but am thwarted on both sides – to the left, cart after cart of people going the other way rush by cutting off my every movie. To the right, people behind me rush to make a pass and zip in ahead of me. When I finally get a free space and make my move, the mad stroller inevitably performs a wobbly turn in that same direction and keeps me from moving. Eventually I get serious and butt my cart in and pass only to be quickly blocked by some other meanderer.

In small aisles there is always someone with a cart parked right in the middle blocking the other side with their bodies as they look over whatever consumer goods are on display. While there, some friend or acquaintance or talkative stranger stops by to chat, completely blocking the entire aisle, oblivious to the forming line behind them.

Speaking of lines, the Chinese don't seem to believe or at least understand them. In the States if there is a counter, or some need for people to be serviced a queue will almost assuredly be formed. They may not always be neat, but there is always some semblance of order. Here, unless forced to by an authority or by structure, the Chinese form what can only be called a chaotic crowd for the same need

There is no queue, only a mass of people trying to edge their way to the front. Recently we took a mini vacation and in the airport for our flight back we stood in a long line for the security check point. I call it a “line” but really it was more like a gelatinous goo of people slowly merging into one, with various other folks standing about. Even under the tightest of securities, we were all still pushing about trying to get closer. As we moved forward , the elbows came out and the strategic positioning began as we all tried to get slightly closer to the end.

Everywhere it is the same. At KFC there is the same mass of people trying to get their order in edgewise. Don't move fast enough, or allow an inch of space between you and the person in front of you, and someone will squeeze in front. Even at the front of the line, my order being taken, I have been edged out, by someone behind me shouting out their order while I'm looking at the English menu making my decision.

The subway is probably the best example of the craziness. As a juxtaposition, I'll first speak about my experience on the Tokyo subway. Tokyo has an enormous population and a gargantuan subway system. As you wait for the subway there are marks on the floor detailing exactly where the doors of the train will be once it stops. The people all line up in two queues on each side of each door in an orderly fashion. There are security guards directing people where to go and ensuring no one gets to close to the edge.

When the train stops, all the people politely wait until every passenger getting off steps off the train before they proceed to get on in an orderly fashion. Sometimes the trains do get crowded and I've seen the security guards give a great big push to the masses to get everyone on board (giving a bow before they push) but everything is done is a polite and courteous manner.

In Shanghai they have similar marks on the floor and there are always congregations of people standing about those marks, but there are also legions of others standing about everywhere. When the train does stop, those not near the marks all try to push their way into the groups standing near the doors. You have to position yourself decisively in a sports stance with elbows out if you are to keep your place. Once the doors open, there is no polite waiting for passengers to get off, but a mass push to get on and possibly find a seat. If you happen to be on board trying to get off at a busy station it is best to wear some football pads and get a running start if you expect to get off.

It isn't that the Chinese don't have any courtesy. In fact I have seen guys punch their way on board so they could get a seat, only to give up that seat when an elderly person, or someone with a small child gets on at the next stop. Fighting crowds seems to be in their genes. While I face the madness with a grimace and a curse, the Chinese seem to consider fighting for some small place in the chaos business as usual and take it all in course.

I'm sure when I go home I'll find all sorts of frustrating situations where I'm behind some slow person, or I'll find myself in some long line that seems to never end. I do love the Chinese and have enjoyed my time in Shanghai. Yet I can't say I'm not looking forward to moving back to rural Oklahoma where I can sit gazing on a long stretch of green, and not see a single person for miles around.

The Shanghai Diaries - Field Trips

It has been five weeks since my last diary. Five. Freaking. Weeks. When I started this column my intentions were to write a post every week. That rarely ever happened but I was knocking out about 3 a month. Yet here I am with more than a month between now and my last word on my experiences in China. What happened? As usual, it was several things. A lot of it is what I'll call the French equation.

My wife and I lived in Strasbourg, France for about 10 months in 2003-4. Blogging came into existence for me in the form of journaling my daily life there. For many months I was writing everyday about the differences in culture, food, and lifestyles between the French and the United States, as well as chronicling my every day experiences. As with all things, though, what was once interesting became mundane. What was exciting was then boring. In France I then turned to movie reviews and my life as something of a “real” writer began.

We're now in the boring stage of my Shanghai adventure. I've written about most of the things that effect my life at this point, and the day to day just isn't exciting enough to merit articles. Thus a lull.

That and I'm lazy. Seriously, there are things I have to write. There are stories to tell, and everyday I tell myself to write them, but first I have to check my e-mail and wash the dishes and do a little reading and watch another movie. Then the wife comes home and the night washes on, and no words have been written.

I'd like to say I'll do better. I'd like to say I'll write more and the diaries will shine on. I'd like to say those things, but I won't. I know better than that.


As my life as a tutor and substitute don't keep me exactly full-scheduled and busy, and as my wife is a teacher, and my sister is a teacher, and everyone I know is a teacher, I am often called upon to help out with school activities. Sometimes this entails chaperoning field trips.

A few weeks ago I accompanied my sister's 10th grade history class to the Shanghai Museum. As with pretty much everything in Shanghai, the museum was a good ride away. The school my sister works for does not own their own school buses - there are no big yellow behemoths around these parts. Instead they rent buses from a local company. These look a bit like run-down Greyhounds, but they do the job. More or less.

We loaded into two of these buses and headed off for our destination. The streets of Shanghai are a terrifying experience in the best of vehicles, but in a large, dilapidated bus it quickly becomes close your eyes and pray time. The big beasts lunged to and fro through traffic, horns a-blazing, weaving between taxis and scooters all the while narrowly missing pedestrians.

After about 4 kilometers the bus pulled over to the side of the road, stopped and cut its engine. We were no where near the museum. There was no explanation of what we were doing. The bus driver exited and went to talk to the driver of the second bus. Phone calls were made and still no explanation. After several long minutes we were finally told that the bus we were on had broken down.

Four kilometers from home, after 10 minutes of driving, the bus was dead. You would think they might do a little maintenance checking before they started lugging a large group of kids through the streets of one of the worlds biggest cities, but no. You would be wrong for thinking such things. Another, much smaller bus was nearby and it quickly came to pick up our kids. All but about ten kids were loaded and the two working busses took off, leaving me, my sister and those ten kids standing on the side of the road.

The road was a major city highway with massive amounts of speeding traffic zooming by at every moment. We had no idea where we were and we had no other instructions but to wait there and try not to get run over.. Visions of one of my kids running away, or being picked up, or being smashed into little bits ran through my head. None of those terrible things did happen and a new bus did indeed pick us up.

The museum was of the historical and not the art variety. It was big, interesting and very educational for the kids. They of course hated it and spent most of the day trying to sit in corners where they could play their PSPs and their Nintendo DSs.

For lunch it was decided we would go to a mall but a few blocks away. We again took our kids out into the streets of Shanghai. It was the lunch rush and thousands of people were out, moving about. Fear like I've never had rose up through my skin as I imagined myself losing one of my kids. Good grief there was no way to keep track of them. It is hard enough just to manage the streets alone, much less keep up with half a dozen tenth graders. We crossed a couple of major intersections, went down through a tunnel and finally came to the mall. Downstairs was the food court and the kids were essentially told to do what they want but to meet us back in an hour.

I questioned my sister about the madness of all of this, but she shrugged and said that's the way it is always done here. I took a deep breath and tried not to imagine the terrible things that could happen. Lunch was good and the kids all came back on time. The ride home went without a hitch and I learned that Chinese field trips are certainly different than their American counterparts, but the results seem to be about the same.


On another occasion my friend Sara asked me to accompany her fourth grade class to the Shanghai Aquarium – overnight. I again said yes and it was away we went. Fourth graders naturally behave differently then those in the tenth grade and this time our bus trip was filled not with broken down busses but a little game of “who should the teacher marry?”

This time there was no letting the kids loose on the streets either. The aquarium, though located on some sizable acreage, including a nice large lake was totally enclosed from the rest of the city, and thus much more safe, relatively speaking.

The day was filled with dolphin shows, a Chinese version of an American meal (fried chicken wings, french fries, sticky rice, and stir fried vegetables all eaten with chop sticks of course) and a virtual-reality ride through Antarctica and a race-course. The night found us in the aquarium proper with tanks full of every kind of fish imaginable along with turtles, eels, sting rays and the shark tank.

The shark tank was huge and contained a couple of those glass tunnels where you could see the sharks from every sort of angle. This is where we would be sleeping and it is fair to say I was just as excited as the kids. I've never been to an aquarium. I've never seen a shark in the flesh. I'm a little boy glued to the Nature Channel at heart and I was mesmerized.

We played chase and tag and turned out the lights and silently wandered through the fake jungle scene like explorers. We fed the sharks cut up fish and squid. We fed the sharks! With my bare hands I threw in some fresh meat and watched the killers of the deep tear it to pieces. Awesome is the word.

Eventually we bunked down for the night. Like I said we slept in the glass tunnels underneath the tank. There were no beds, save for our own blankets and small mats provided by the aquarium which weren't much more than cardboard. This is where my own age crept back in. Sleeping on what amounts to concrete and a thin sheet of cardboard isn't exactly something I can do well anymore. Sleeping with a bunch of fourth graders at a glorified slumber party when they are full of sugar and adrenaline underneath hundreds of pounds of water full of swimming death machines is near impossible.

The night was full of laughter, shouting, shhh-ing and a lecture on why it isn't appropriate to shine your flashlight on and discuss the merits of various shark butt-holes. I actually did manage to get a little sleep and despite it all it was quite an amazing experience to lie on my back in my make-shift bed watching sharks swim past sting rays and giant turtles. With a few nights rest in a soft warm bed, I can't wait for my next adventure as a field trip chaperon.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Crooked Rain

Here's a run down of what I've been doing since my last post.

The weekend before last we went to Hangzhou with our friends Laura and Thomas. Hangzhou is something of a sister city to Suzhou which is the city we went to a couple of months back. Both cities are highly recommended and are supposedly some of the most beautiful country in this country. Both were a bit of a let down.

For Suzhou we arrived to early, like in the winter, and none of the fine scenery had blossomed or bloomed. In Hangzhou the flowers had somewhat bloomed, but it rained the entire time.

We went to Hangzhou kind of spur of the moment as Thomas had to be there during the week for work, and Laura asked if we wanted to make a weekend of it. We did and we went. The focus of the city is a large man-made lake and several islands that float about in it. It was very beautiful, though quite soggy.

We took a boat tour of the island and the trees had blossomed and it was nice. Raining pretty solidly on Sunday we went to KTV (karaoke) and made an afternoon of it. Karaoke is much different in Asia than in the States to say the least. It is quite the ordeal here. An entire building was decked out for our pleasure. I consisted of dozens of small private rooms for which to sing and a large central room full of buffet style food. They had plenty of American songs and we had lots of fun.

This past weekend we went to Yangshuo. This is a little village that my sister has been to many times and absolutely adores. It is basically a tourist trap, but the views are so spectacular it is worth it. It is located right on a river, and the mountains look like some crazy prehistoric animals back. Again it was rainy and overcast and thus our views were less spectacular than I had hoped, but this place is so amazing that it didn't matter so much.

One of the rainy days we decided to go caving to get out of the wetness. We were the only white people there and we got many a stare from the Chinese. To get into the cave we had to take a small boat into a cavern. The entrance was so small we had to duck down into the boat and pray that we didn't get knocked over.

I've been to a few caves in the US and am generally underwhelmed. For safety reasons they have to be made so sanitary and generic that they usually aren't a lot of fun. China seems a little more lax with that and thus the cave was much more interesting. Besides nearly getting knocked over coming into the cave there were several moment where we had to nearly crawl through passages, step on slippery rocks to get across creeks and generally access areas a bit more dangerous than would ever be allowed into the states.

It wasn't terribly risky mind you, it was just so much more so than you'd ever see in the States.

The highlight was the mud pool which me and Amy and our friend Sara climbed into. Basically it is a small reservoir of water which is very muddy at the bottom. Tourists love to jump in and get covered in filthy cave mud. We were one of those and we got nasty. The water was actually freezing cold so it took a moment to warm up to, but after that we slung and wrestled and had a blast. Again we were the only ones in the pool and all the Chinese stared at the crazy Americans. They actually had a photo set up going on so that one of the tour guides took pictures of us, then uploaded it onto his computer. They had everything set up there so that we could look at our pictures right there in the cave and have it printed out for us as we toured the rest of the cave.

Farther down was a big pool of water and we took a good swim in it. It also was freezing cold but kind of refreshing. At the end was a massive waterfall that we relaxed under for a bit.

Also during the weekend we took a couple of boat rides and climbed a mountain. The boat was restful and the mountain intense. Lots of stairs followed by an off road trail filled with slippery mud and danger. The view was worth it though.

I'll try to have pictures up in a few days, and I suspect I will write in detail about Yangshuo later.

Due to weather we wound up having our return flight delayed nearly 12 hours and we didn't get home until about noon on Monday. I was in bed by 7 that night and the puking my guts out by 9. I remained sick all that evening and then feeling completely weak from it Tuesday. I'm feeling better now, but am coughing like there is no tomorrow.

And that's what we've been up to.