The Twinkie Times

The life and times of a Chinese American. Born a Jersey boy, lived the expat life, attended boarding school (Lawrenceville), converted to a frat boy (Sigma Pi), got an MBA (Columbia), returned to China, and back to the East Coast now trying to carve out an identity and life as an Asian American dad (gulp) in the midst of a "tertial life crisis" ©

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

The Grass is Not Greener on the Pudong Side

It has been over two months since we arrived in the People's Republic and it has been quite a roller-coaster ride.  This story begins with an emotional final week in New Jersey.  Although there was a professional moving company coming to pack up all of our things, we still wanted to sort through the 5 years worth of accumulated junk we had managed to hide away in every corner of our apartment.  I don't think I'm quite as bad as some of the folks on the Hoarders TV show but I do have a tendency to hold onto empty boxes.  However, Jenn was impressed when I produced the empty iMac box which had been stashed away for 3 years and she had never even laid eyes on it.  As we packed up our life and took a trip down memory lane, there were several speed bumps and potholes.  Sadness over things we never had a chance to do in the Tri-State area and countless tearful good-byes (from Jenn) to friends and family.

Our last 4 days in the U.S. of A were somewhat of a blur and the two of us were running on pure adrenaline but were impressed when the movers managed to pack up everything in just 2 days.  Actually, they were almost a little too efficient.  Apart from adrenaline, we were also sustaining ourselves on Salt 'n' Vinegar chips, gummy bears, and Vitamin Water.  When the crew chief, Clint, asked Jenn what should be packed in the kitchen, she busily told him that the right two cabinets should go into storage and everything else comes with us as she turned her attention to sorting through the coat closet.  No less than one hour later everything that was in the kitchen had been wrapped, stuffed, and sealed in a box.  Our sea shipment finally arrived 5 days ago and to my pleasant surprise we found our open bag of Lay's, chip clip and all, and they were still crunchy!

Fast forward through the rest of the move and numerous
self-storage trips to the airport where we checked in 6 suitcases between the two and a half of us (Calvin, the dog, had his own suitcase too).  The flight itself was as smooth as the chocolate fudge they served from the sundae cart.  We gorged ourselves on food and movies while Calvin happily slept in his bag under the seat (not in the overhead compartment).  The flight attendants never even noticed him and the 15 hour flight was just one long noisy nap for him.  The final hurdle was getting him through immigration and we were still not sure how that was going to play out.  In China, there is a term called 'guan xi' which describes the connections or relationships in your personal network which is deeply rooted in Chinese society.  A closely related notion is that anything is possible in China if you know the right people (including 'Benjamin' or 'Mao' over here).  In Calvin's case, he was very lucky that a friend of ours in NJ, whose mother who had been a professor in Shanghai, had kept in touch with a former student who happened to work at the Animal Quarantine Bureau.  Long story short, a typical 30 day quarantine which could be reduced to 7 days with a special "VIP fee (payment)" was supposed to be knocked down to only 1 night because of our connection.  For those who have met the little Maltese, he is not exactly the toughest pooch on the block but we were confident he could survive one night at the quarantine station.  However, when we arrived at the immigration desk, they were expecting us and led us to a back-office.  They asked us to demonstrate that Calvin would obey some basic commands, photocopied his pet passport, and then escorted him through the Arrivals area and handed him back to us.  And just like that the two and a half of us had arrived in Shanghai and were headed to our temporary accommodations.

The pet-friendly service apartment was tastefully furnished and we were grateful to have air-conditioning and a place to temporarily unpack our luggage.  We were not quite prepared for the stifling humidity in Shanghai.  I understand NYC also had a brutal summer but the palpable moisture in the air here sapped our strength to the point where all we wanted to do was shower and veg on the couch watching CNN.  In China, if the temperature reaches above 40 C (104 F) any workers who are outside get the day off.  Not surprisingly, many days during the peak of summer were "officially" 39.6 C or 39.8 C.  A colleague has told me that he runs a dehumidifier in his bedroom and it can pull almost three liters of water out of the air per day.  I guess I know what will be my first purchase on

So the relocation/moving company had provided a little guidebook which outlined the different phases of culture shock and it is scary how accurately it has reflected our experience thus far.  Phase I: Excitement.  We were in a vibrant new city bustling with energy, sparkling with modern mega skyscrapers in the homeland of our ancestral roots.  Our neighborhood, Xujiahui, the second busiest shopping district in downtown Shanghai offered countless restaurants, 6 shopping megaplexes, and 3 western grocery stores.  On our first day, we explored one of these, City Shop, and were pleasantly surprised to find all the staples we might need although at a hefty premium: Doritos ($10 USD), Cheerios ($8), frozen pizza ($12).  Ok, this did not seem so bad as everything was still exciting and interesting and we continued to explore.  But as our jet-lagged days drew to a close, the novelty quickly faded and we dove headfirst into Phase II: Withdrawal. 

Our bustling neighborhood was no longer captivating, it was just overcrowded and 10 degrees hotter than anywhere else in the city with all the people, tall buildings, and neon lights.  The nice modern service apartment had begun massive renovations so the lobby was now boarded up and we awoke to the fumes of paint most mornings.  While I was lucky to escape to the office, Jenn had to endure the cacophony of sledge hammers, electric saws, and drills throughout the day.  Running errands became multi-hour-long stress attacks.  Being able to speak Mandarin is really only half the battle as I learned when opening a bank account (there is no such thing as checking accounts in China) and purchasing a cell phone.  Reading a contract or filling out a form on your own is virtually impossible but I was finally able to get Jenn an iPhone4.  As for banking, I had to eventually switch banks since the online English site simply did not work for my Bank of China account.  We were both in a downward spiral towards 'what are we doing here' and 'what did we get ourselves into'.  Sleepless nights created a vicious cycle of animosity towards our newly adopted city.  We complained about many things like the abundance of electric scooters which would zip all over the sidewalks.  We call them silent assassins since they make no noise until the high-pitched horn buzzes in your ear as they zoom by almost clipping your elbows.  We reminisced about the Big Apple and compared everything to 'back home'.

Phase III is Adjustment.  I am hopeful that we are on the cusp of entering this stage.  We had to take several trips with different real estate agents to try to locate an apartment since we eventually had to vacate the service apartment.  Shanghai is divided by the HuangPu River into east (dong) Pudong and west (xi) Puxi.  Downtown is on the west side along with most of the cultural landmarks.  The newly developed east side has been called Pu Jersey by many.  The new Morgan Stanley office also happens to be moving to the Pudong side, way way way east.  Originally, we had planned to live in Pudong, somewhere close to the office as it was supposed to be nicer, quieter, cheaper, and greener.  After a day of touring some of the apartment complexes we were both pretty depressed as we discovered that they truly valued quantity over quality in China.  The pace of construction is unbelievable here but the caliber is questionable.  Some of these complexes had over 35 buildings and it was a maze to even navigate to the entrance/exit.  Inside some of these units, cracks ran the length of the wall as there had been no time to wait for foundations to settle and cabinets and light switches were not level since they were almost certainly hastily installed.  Air quality was not noticeably better and there were a few more trees and parks but that is because everything is more spread out.  If we wanted to seriously consider Pudong we would in all likelihood need to buy a car or hire a driver/car package.  Eventually we had to re-evaluate our plan and decided to look in Puxi although this would be a longer commute for me.  The buildings we looked at on the west side were slightly older (circa 2005-6) but built by reputable Hong Kong corporations.  Having looked at almost 30 different units we eventually settled on an apartment in the French Concession and signed a one-year lease.  Our sea shipment has also recently arrived so we are slowly trying to transform the apartment into a home now.  Needless to say, we miss everyone back in the US and hope that the earthquake and hurricane did not cause too much damage for all the East Coasters.

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