Monday, February 25, 2013

Daily Life in Suzhou/China

Favorite place in Suzhou: Pingjiang Lu

A few of you might remember that several weeks ago I posted a Facebook status about my ability to walk around Suzhou singing blissfully along to my iPod. This is one hundred percent true. In Suzhou, the number of English speaking people is relatively low. This has lead to me believing that because people can’t understand anything I say, they more or less can’t hear me either. Therefore, on my walk to work every day, I pick an album and sing to my heart’s content. For Tommy, this has led to statements that aren’t mumbled so much as said relatively quietly, because no one knows what we are saying. I find it all to be incredibly fun because who doesn’t want to live life like a mini musical?

And I feel that I am correct in saying that as a whole, China agrees with me. At least once per day I hear someone singing, and not quietly. When the people in China feel like singing, they apparently do so with no reservations. And they don’t even have the whole ‘no one knows what I’m saying’ thing going on! Furthermore, the old men (I have not seen any women doing this) put mini radios in their pockets and blare their favorite radio stations. It reminds me strongly of people carrying around boom boxes, but on a much smaller scale. Tommy apparently knew about this before I did because he wasn’t at all shocked when we walked past an older man with his radio playing his favorite “classical Chinese music” station.

Additionally, celebrity pictures are a mainstay for white people in China. This includes two types. Type A: the Chinese will be brave enough to make gestures to show that they want to you be in a picture with them. If they do this, you pose with them, usually with them embracing you in some sort of hug as if you are lifelong BFFs (during this hug you may also feel the need to be hyper aware of your purse or wallet). Type B: the Chinese will take stalker photos of you. No questions asked, they just hold up their phone and click away. This is not done in any sort of subtle manner. It is blatantly obvious and therefore excessively awkward. This of course leads to Tommy making faces at the camera and the Chinese person laughing or getting embarrassed but nonetheless taking the picture.

Getting around Suzhou and China in general involves a ton of walking. You walk to the store, to the restaurant, to the bus stop, to the subway. Anywhere you want to go, you have to walk somewhere first. I don’t mind walking, in fact I quite like it otherwise I wouldn’t have survived on MSU’s campus for four years. However, China enjoys making walking painful. Not due to distance, but due to the sidewalk configuration. In the ‘middle’ of the sidewalk there is a patch of tile that is meant to help the blind walk. A: I have never seen a blind person in China. B: As Lemon told us, if there was a blind person walking around, he or she would have a friend helping him, so he or she would not need the tiles. C: The tiles are painful as hell!!

I am not kidding here, people. These tiles literally murder your feet. They are a good foot across so basically unavoidable unless you walk on either side of them, but sometimes the sidewalk isn’t wide so you are trying to counter four inches of regular bricks and a foot of death tile. The tile is raised long cylindrical ridges. For a visual look here:

The Chinese comfort strip

Finally, the street food. I refused to touch the street food in New York, sincerely fearing for my health. Not so in China! Of course, I didn’t dare try any one my own, only with the guidance of Lemon did I make my foray into the extensive options of street food available in China. They do it up classy here. No boring pretzel and hot dog stands! Instead, we have melted sugar covered strawberries on a stick, freshly made popcorn, cooked yams, this special flat bread they make with chives, freshly cut and shoved on a stick fruit, cotton candy! All very exciting. So far we have tried the popcorn and yams, both are delicious! The yams are amazing, you peel them out of their blazing hot skin and dig in (preferably with spoon, but people eat them like an apple so no big if you just feel like sinking your teeth in to the steaming goodness). We ate the strawberries, but that was from a food kiosk in a mall where we could see them being freshly made. Still delicious though. The strawberries are hot from the sugar and it’s a crazy explosion of flavor in your mouth, much different than eating cold strawberries dipped in granulated sugar but equally as good. 

Chinese dinner on our street

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Humorous Shanghai Anecdote

There is a huge mall in Shanghai right by the Pearl Tower, this mall is called Super Brand Mall. It is seven floors high and just in general HUGE. So, while vacationing in Shanghai Tommy and I decided to wander around this mall for a while. 

While riding the escalator from one floor to the next, we met a particularly lovely gentleman. It is about said gentleman that our anecdote precedes.  Let the humorousness commence.

Setting: Michelle and Tommy are riding the escalator down from floor four to floor three in search of the Dumpling restaurant Uncle Leon took them to. They are conversing about the Dumpling place when Michelle hears a man behind them speaking quietly. 

Tommy breaks off his conversation with Michelle to look at the man on the step behind them. 

Tommy: Hello.

Chinese Man: Hello!

Michelle (awkwardly): Hi.

Chinese Man (illegibly): Does your country celebrate Spring Festival?

Tommy frowns, completely unsure of what this man is asking. Michelle picks up the conversational ball.

Michelle: No, we don't.

Chinese Man: Where are you from?

Michelle: America.

Tommy: The United States.

Chinese Man (puzzled): Uh, States?

Tommy: Yes, The United States.

Chinese Man (excitedly and therefore more illegible than ever): Oh, do you know [insert German sounding word]?

Michelle (utterly perplexed): Uhm, I'm sorry what?

Chinese Man (not deterred): Do you know [insert German word]?

Michelle: I'm sorry -

Tommy (with sudden clarity): Oh! Arnold Schwarzenegger? 

Chinese Man (very pleased): Yes. He often says 'I will be back.'

Michelle: Uhm, yeah he did.

Tommy: Yep.

The trio gets off the escalator, Michelle and Tommy heading one direction and the Chinese Man in the opposite direction. Michelle pauses looking down at the next floor, Tommy comes to stand beside her.

Michelle: I thought he was speaking in German, I have no idea how you understood that.

Tommy: I don't either! One second it was gibberish and the next I just knew he was saying Arnold Schwarzenegger, which does sound German so you were on track. But what did he ask us first? I couldn't make that out.

Michelle: He asked if our country celebrates Spring Festival. 

Tommy: Oh. Wonder how pumped he is to tell all his friends about his conversation with the foreigners?


Thursday, February 14, 2013

Spring Festival


After we got back from Beijing, Michelle and I were eating at a restaurant listening to the live music, a guy with a keyboard singing 1980s pop music, when a quick series of events occurred.  Michelle said something along the lines of wanting to go to a beach and hating winter.  If you know Michelle at all, you will learn early on that she HATES the cold and is always cold. I got excited when she said this because we are only a few hour plane trip from some of the best beaches in the world.  Michelle curbed my excitement by saying that she was scared that we would not be paid even though our contract states that our vacation are to be.  She then got up, went to the bathroom,  my phone got a "you've been paid" text message, and so our planning began.

After a little research, we found that flights were really expensive because of the mass migration of people for Chinese New Year.  We figured that would will hit up Thailand, the Philippines, or whatever beach we decide to go to at a later date and settled with a short trip to a sea of skyscrapers instead in Shanghai.

We've been to Shanghai a few times before but this is the first time we were able to cover all of the tourist destinations in detail.  The last few times we were given great tours by Michelle's Aunt and Uncle but time was always the enemy.

Our trip started early as we arrived by train to the Tong Mao Hotel at around noon.  The hotel was really nice considering how little we paid for it so I made sure to be as obnoxious as possible since I am not used to staying in 4 star accommodations.  One night I Skyped my mom while I was wearing the hotel's robe and she told me "Tommy, remember, you can't bring that home with you" half-jokingly. Overall the room was the nicest place we stayed in in China.

 But again, since this is China, 4 stars may not be equivalent to the rest of the world's 4 star hotels. This was apparent when we went to check out the pool.  In typical white trash fashion Michelle and I wore our swimsuits with a shirt over them down to the pool instead of using the locker room like their supposed to be used.  After using the locker and putting on my tiny sized sandals I refused to step in the sanitation pool meant for your feet and climbed around the edges as Michelle laughed at me. She chose to step in it but screamed when she found out that it was really cold.  Our greatest fear about entering a pool in China for the first time was actually if they remembered to heat it or not.  They did in fact heat it and even had a possible life-guard on duty...even though he was a very old sleeping man who jumped when we woke him up. This happened on day 2 or 3...I don't remember.

Day one, like I said we arrived around noon.  We were going to save the aquarium trip for a possible rainy or later day but we decided to go right away.  The Shanghai aquarium was really cool. It wasn't the biggest aquarium nor did it have the most animals but they did a great job with condensed space.  In the end that is what all of China really is:  how to use a small amount of space.  Michelle really liked how they had themes for each section like "Australia" or "South Asia" as you entered an exibit room.  My favorite (or "favourite" which we have to use in the classroom for British English) part was the escalator that went down through a big tank. We used the rest of our day in a giant, 9 story mall, just outside of the Oriental Pearl Tower. To get an idea of how big the mall is try to think if you have ever been in one that featured alleyways.

Cartoon alleyways



Jellyfish are pretty cool
 Day two, we spent our day at Nanjing Lu which we have explained in one of  our previous Blogs.  It's China's version of NYC's Times Square.  Michelle spent a good amount of time trying on and deciding if she should buy a dress.  She decided to sleep on it and we went back another day  and bought it.  On Day two, which was actually Chinese New Year, we did a really bad job with the closing times of places.  We wanted to head to Jing'An temple which is basically a pretty good size temple that has been renovated and up kept really well inside of many skyscrapers but we missed the cut off while our search for a meal took a little bit longer than expected.  Michelle stuck with rice overload Chao Fan (Fried Rice) + Mi Fan (White Rice) while I got some dish with tomato sauce over chicken and rice.  During this trip we often forgot the high level of English in Shanghai and probably could have insulted employees or embarrassed ourselves as we would use our minimal Chinese to order food and get the casual response :  "oh, you would like this?" in English. We also got to the Xinyang Fashion and Gift Market(explained later) at 5 minutes before closing without knowing it.

Jing'An Temple

We spent our night watching fireworks light the sky outside of our hotel window.  Fireworks and firecrackers were going off everywhere and were way louder than any 4th of July could ever get.   It's was pretty crazy to see a New York sized city engulfed in color and explosions.

Baby pandas roam the streets and subways in China

Day three we visited the former French Concession of Shanghai. Just looking at the buildings Shanghai has obvious influences from British, French, and America.  The French Concession was a former French settlement in Shanghai.  It is a very artsy place where there are many shops, cafes, and restaurants in small alleyways.  It isn't a full out France copy but more of a China + a little France = the French Concession.  While there isno Eiffel tower there is a very European park that we visited and many cafes with lots of seating outside.  I imagine that during the warmer months it would be very fun to go to one of these bars or cafes and sit outside at night.

Tianzifang little China-France

In the French Concession Michelle and I browsed through the shops and had fun laughing at the products they sold as usual.  We followed this walking tour that should be destroyed from the internet.  But, if we didn't choose to follow the whole walk we wouldn't have seen a chicken roaming the sidewalk, an old cinema, a few french looking buildings, and a man in full pajamas just looking for a good lunch.
Theater, Fuxing Park, Chicken

After walking a good amount of time we found ourselves back in the alleyways and found a place to eat. Our tables were individual small bench like tables in a place that sat way more people than it should have been able to.  Inside were people from all over: Chinese, British, American, French, Irish (talked a lot!) and more. It was called the Kommune...We didn't put the name together until after we saw the menu.

We did eat cake. Chocolate.

Once we were done being French, we headed over to the Xinyang Fashion and Gift Market (Translation: The Fake Market).  Everything is fake, most things are awesomely real looking.  Being a market in China you better be ready to put your bargaining skills to the test.  Hearing "What's your NO JOKE price", "Haha, that's impossible! Impossible!", and dueling it out by typing numbers into a calculator are quite common here.  Though Michelle and I suck at Chinese we do have our numbers down and can ask "How much is this?"   Which is about all you need espcially since in Shanghai they all mostly know English.

Space Ship on the walk back to our hotel

At first glance Michelle seems like a terrible partner to have in these negotiation but she is actually who you want on your side.  Typically it seems you want to buy something at around 25% of the initial offer.  So if they say something costs 100 kuai you should pay 25.  So for example Michelle was in the market for a backpack.  We figured we could get one for less than 100kuai (about $16usd).  The first shop we went into we were quickly analyzed (White tourists = Stupid and rich) and quoted at 400 quai.  Michelle literally laughed in the lady's face and was like we're out of here.  Right off the bat Michelle seems uninterested in the prices and before I ever make an offer they are dropping the price.  So then this is where I come in.  I offer something like 80kuai and stick with it no matter what they say.  "This is impossible"  "I will lose money"  "This is my best friend price" blah blah blah...oh yeah Michelle is outside the store because she peaced out.  Then eventually they meet my price, I call Michelle and Michelle comes in and pays.  Occasionally I will walk out and they will lower the price while I'm leaving or two stores down.  The key to negotiating is just not to believe what they say because if they say something dramatic instead of reject you outright, it means your offer is right and they will make some type of profit. The coolest part is that you don't have to be enemies with the sellers even if you 'win' a negotiation.  They still like you because they still make money.

We did this same technique for a few things except for my Dad's thing which I did by myself.  I bought a Justin Verlander Tiger's jersey for my Dad and a statue thing for my mom.  Michelle bought some things for her parents plus the backpack.  The only thing that we failed to negotiate on was new Uggs (fake) for Michelle. We just couldn't seem to get the price low enough so after making a few shop keepers mad with our offers, she decided to try to buy them back at our home in Suzhou.

Day four was our final day in Shanghai and was very busy.  We started out by heading back to Jing'An Temple at operating hours but found that the ticket price was 100 kuai instead of 30 which was listed online.  We decided to go into the park across the street where there was a garden for 3 kuai (50cents) instead.  We also got to see three old Chinese people completely ignore the police and walk on the clearly labeled "Do not walk on the grass" sign in Chinese while the officer yelled and blew her whistle.

In China even walls have walls around them

Way to go British people

Our next destination was Yuyuan which is a very touristy destination where the market and shops are built in typical Chinese architecture.  We've visited here before with Michelle's Uncle Leon but we wanted to look around a little more.  It seemed that Shanghai was very quiet until our fourth day with it being the beginning of Chinese New Year.  All the families were out and about after spending time together outside of the city.  This place was madness with how crowded it was.  Basically it was a giant moshpit except the crazy people at concerts who throw elbows and run you over are the old people in China.  This is true in most cases. They will run you over no problem....and if you accidentally push them or elbow drop them on their little heads, they won't mind, since they are so used to the crowds I suppose.   This is something Michelle and I are trying to work on.  When you get bumped into in the US or probably any where else you expect someone to say sorry or at least give you a head nod.  Here, you aren't supposed to get upset, so I've been working on holding my ground as well.  No one is going to cut me in the line to the escalator in the subway again!

Yuyuan Craziness

Where was I?...So we left Yuyuan after Michelle added a small bear keychain to her collection and headed to the much quieter Dongtai Antique Market.  This place is really cool for gifts and other weird little nicnacs.  The best part about the antique market is that it isn't really an 'antique' market at all because a lot of the items are mass produced.  But the best part is that some of the little stalls put some dust and dirt on them to make it seem that you are truely getting a one of a kind ancient piece.  They have everything from 6' tall terracotta warriors for your backyard to waiving Mao watches...The only downside to this and any other markets in Shanghai is the pushiness of the owners.  We feel that we are much more likely to buy something or give you an offer if you let us look for a minute or two before saying "You likey?" in English or "You likey" in Chinese.

Dongtai Market looks more ghetto than actually is

Michelle bought a little pocket watch after I went back and forth with a shop keepers for about 3 or 4 minutes.  I'm sure Michelle did not care if I left or not due to the awkwardness.  I held firm after pushing the same number in a calculator and saying it in Chinese over and over again until I used the 'walk away' tactic again and called Michelle over to pay.  The other thing that I bought was this cool mask that I plan on putting up in our apartment somewhere from a nice old couple with zero English knowledge.  You don't need much Chinese skills when money is involved!

These are all one of a kind...Don't worry that everyone has them here

We finished up our day across the street of Dongtai at Shanghai's version of the Bird and Flower Market.  We prefer Suzhou's much more because there are more animals and things to buy for the animals.  Announcement: Michelle bought a tiny dawf hamster from Suzhou's Bird and Flower Market in Suzhou.  She named it Coco which happens to be our favorite drink here since we arrived in China.  For dinner on our last night we headed to a Chinese restaurant near the Pearl Tower and the Shanghai Aquarium..  While eating, a woman, an older man, and a young boy came up to our table.  The woman said, "Do you remember him?" as she pushed the embarrassed looking boy toward me.  I said "Yes of course" since he looked familiar and is one of my students, though I couldn't tell you what class or even which school that I teach in that he is in.  I did know that he was grade 5.  I have 45 kids per class and 22 classes so I definitely have not been here long enough to know each and ever student yet.  The older man also said "I'm his grandpa" because he was so proud.  We talked shortly and all I could remember was how awkward it was seeing your teacher outside of school when I was in elementary school and I felt bad for the kid.

Coco Milktea/Coco Hamster

We headed back by bullet train the next day where I was forced to sit by two German guys with huge suitcases which forced me to sit halfway into the aisle.  But at least he nicely asked me "Iz itz OK?".  We were just happy to get back to Suzhou where we found that our city knows how to do fireworks like no one else including Shanghai.

It's more fun if you hit the buildings