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" ©

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Baby Steps

We recently passed the 3 month mark in Shanghai and in tribute to "What About Bob" we have been making baby steps into Phase III: Adjustment of the culture shock stages.  It may come as a surprise to many but if I wanted to look up some details on this classic Bill Murray movie I would not be able to access IMDb since it is blocked by the Great Fire-Wall of China (GFW).  One of my small victories thus far involved successfully circumventing the GFW.  The government keeps a pretty tight lid on the flow of communication and information here so sites such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Picasa, and Blogspot among others are unavailable.  This did not have much impact on me as I have had little time or desire to be on the computer outside of the office and the numerous late-night calls anyway but for Jenn, FB was an increasingly important instrument of remaining connected to friends and family back home.  This became my first mission and after researching and polling various sources on the best alternative, I decided to set up a proxy server in the US to serve as the intermediary for our web traffic.  It was my first foray into Amazon's EC2 cloud computing services but before long, I was able to enjoy internet freedom and hence was able to upload these photos to Picasa: click here to accompany my previous post.

So, I was quite pleased to have solved this particular problem.  For Jenn, she recently began her Chinese lessons and was now attending class 3 times a week for 4 hours.  Her first practical test of applying her new language skills came about when she needed to order water for our new apartment.  The plumbing here is questionable at best so nobody drinks the water straight out of the tap.  We had been buying large bottles of spring water during our stay in the service apartment but once we moved, there was a water cooler in our kitchen like those typically found on an office floor.  In order to get water, we needed to arrange a home delivery and Jenn made it her mission to call the company and schedule the drop-off.  This also turned out to be relatively painless although we found it interesting that the deliveries are made by guys on tiny electric scooters balancing huge jugs of water and that it was cash-on-delivery.  Since credit cards are seldom used and checks are non-existent, almost all transactions are cash-based.  One of my coworkers even told me that if you order something from a courier will deliver it to your door and you can pay him cash.  This established practice made me very nervous when I had to pay our first month rent and security deposit as I walked the streets with wads of cash like a drug-dealer.

Another common custom here is to hire a helper around the house, called an 'ayi'.  We were not really sure how to begin this process since we had heard horror stories about some ayi's not being trustworthy or utilizing questionable cleaning methods.  One such incident involved using the same sponge to clean the bathroom and to wash the dishes.  Many of the ayi's also come from remote rural villages and may not be able to read which could present many other practical challenges (ie. sugar vs. salt vs. laundry detergent).  In another stroke of luck, it turned out that a foreigner family living in our neighborhood posted on an expat web forum that their ayi was looking for another home to work part-time.  She was highly recommended and could cook, clean, and do any other type of household work for about $3 USD an hour.  After her first day, we gave her the key to our apartment and now she comes three times a week in the morning.  Our ayi has been great and she even told me not to dry-clean my shirts as she would iron them for me.  You don't have to tell me twice; I am terrible at ironing and my shirts usually come out looking more wrinkled than before and it is Jenn's least favorite chore.

The next goal of course was then to buy an iron and ironing board.  Our first stop was Ikea ("Yi Jia Jia Ju" in Chinese).  Everyone had been warning us that Ikea on the weekends was a recipe for disaster.  We had been to the one in Elizabeth, NJ plenty of times on the weekend so we thought we would be adequately prepared to deal with the shopping crowds.  Plus some sense of masochistic curiosity compelled us to ignore the warnings and visit on a Saturday at lunchtime.  It was not quite as bad as everyone made it out to be but it was very interesting to see families and customers truly making use of the showrooms.  There were literally people sleeping on the beds taking naps and others who had brought what could only be described as picnic lunches and enjoying themselves on the dining table display furniture.  It was fascinating to see families in the mock-up living rooms relaxing on couches and conversing (loudly) as if they were at home.  Much like our strategy in the US, we made a bee line for the store sections we needed utilizing as many of the shortcuts we could find.  The Ikea cafeteria here also serves Swedish meatballs and salmon but offers some Chinese dish options and delicious fresh mango or watermelon juice in addition to the staple lingonberry.  We also found out that counterfeit products were small potatoes compared to pirating the whole shopping experience.  Apparently there are fake Apple and Ikea stores popping up in neighboring cities with identical store layouts, color schemes, and employee uniforms.  It is one thing to make a fake luxury handbag but taking it to a whole different level to replicate a 4-story 10,000 square meter (32,800 sq. ft.) blue and yellow furniture store.

So we had purchased the ironing board and we simply went to a local electronics department store for the iron.  Best Buy actually tried to enter the China market but shut down all of their stores earlier this year.  Their flagship store was down the street from our old service apartment and the huge sign remains a glaring dark spot in the nighttime neon mosaic of Xujiahui.  Jenn and I have fantasized about a Whole Foods (Paycheck) opening in its place.  Although it would be pricey, we would be willing to pay the premium especially with the non-existent food safety standards here.  From gutter oil (reused cooking oil siphoned from restaurant back-alleys) and fake pepper (made from industrial materials and talc powder) to exploding watermelons (overuse of growth chemicals) eating out or even buying groceries from a wet market is like playing Russian roulette with your organs. Although it is not possible to scrutinize or control everything we eat, we have on occasion ordered from an online organic food company, Fields, and were happy with the quality and price - of course delivered to our front door COD.  For home-cooked dinners, we are happy to pay ayi to buy the groceries for us, out of sight out of mind, but at least she washes the veggies thoroughly and we buy the oil ourselves.

Another baby step we conquered was buying Jenn a bike.  Her school is about a 25 minute walk away and although the French Concession area is very conducive to long exploratory strolls it would be much more enjoyable on a bicycle.  At first she was terrified of biking on the streets where you are at the mercy of reckless taxi drivers and crazy scooters but every time we saw a Caucasian cruise past us on their two-wheeler blissfully enjoying their self-generated breeze her fears subsided a little.  When we were finally ready to bite the bullet we were faced with another dilemma.  Although crime is generally very low in China, bicycle thefts are quite common.  Most people we had talked to who purchased a brand new bike eventually had it stolen, some were on their 3rd or 4th, and others resorted to lugging the bike into their apartment to keep it safe from would-be thieves.  We were not willing to join the list of victims so we were determined to find a used bike for Jenn.  After weeks of asking bike repair shops, scouring craigslist.china, checking department stores for inexpensive models, and unsuccessfully looking for the used bike market, we were almost ready to splurge on a new bike and just get 3 different locks.  But then I decided to ask our trusty ayi to see if she knew of any place to buy a used bike.  As it turned out, there was a bike repair shop across the street from her apartment and she was quite friendly with the shop owner.  Two days later, Jenn had a rusty beaten up tank-of-a-bicycle with a brand new seat and basket for about $15 USD.  This thing weighs as much as a Mini Cooper but she could not be any happier riding along the tree-lined streets of our neighborhood now with Calvin in the basket and we do not have to worry about anyone stealing the clunker.

Finally, we have been slowly making friends here in this faraway land.  A colleague of mine had recommended an international church here and we met some nice people.  That and meeting folks through coworkers has been our primary source of socialization.  It has been interesting to meet so many people from other countries, so far: France, Germany, Sweden, Netherlands, Australia, Singapore, and even Mongolia.  We have also determined that we cannot be complacent in making friends.  Want to go karaoke?  Sure.  Ultimate frisbee?  I'm in.  Would you like to attend a book reading?  Okay.  Do you want to watch World Cup Rugby?  Certainly (I had to Wikipedia the rules).  I think the key has been to stay active and busy.  It still does not quite feel like home yet but the initial feelings of despair have largely faded and we are now trying to carve out our identity in this urban sea of Chinese compatriots.  As always, my thoughts and heart are back on the East Coast but hopefully my ramblings provide some entertainment value and can entice some of you to consider a visit to the Pearl of the Orient.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Animal Style

We were very excited when we saw this billboard in Shanghai.  Having only had In-N-Out 3 times in my life and loving every moment, a Double Double Animal Style would be a delectable treat in the Far East.

Well it turns out it's not exactly the typical Chinese "copy" but I will still try it none the same:

UPDATE:  January 2012 - tried it, loved it.  It's called 'Wild Style' but they also serve beer and wine!

Labels: ,