Thursday, October 25, 2012

Golden Week Part Two: Shanghai

After our whirlwind trip to Suzhou, Chris and I decided to be tourists in our own town.  Since Chris started his job less than one week after our arrival to Shanghai, we have not seen many monuments as a couple.  It was about time he joined me on some local field trips.

After resting on Thursday, Friday we decided to do what many tourists long to do in Shanghai…eat street food and shop at the fake markets. 
Many street food vendors sell meat on a stick all over the city.  Good stuff! 
I'll take two...

Chinese fake markets are not for the claustrophobic or agoraphobic.  After walking through the plastic door flapped entrance, hoards of customers weave through a maze of stalls and are greeted by aggressive salespeople offering Gucci, Prada, Rolex, DVDs, Deats by Dr. Dre and more.   (That is not a typo folks. J ) Aggressive salespeople will gently grab your arm or shove a laminated product sheet in your face in hopes of landing a sale. 
Chris bargains for some DVDs.

The only problem with these markets is what you see isn’t always what you get.  For example, I thought I purchased the movie Campaign starring Will Farrell.  Imagine the disappointment I felt as I popped the movie in my DVD player to find Game Change, a movie about the McCain campaign.  I could not believe my eyes.  The DVD itself had the Campaign movie art on it.  (I double-checked.)  At least I was able to watch my other movies.  At the bargain price of 7-10 RMB ($1-$2), I should not expect these movies to be flawless.

After scoring some DVDs and a pair of ‘Prada’ shades, it was time for a rest.  

You make the call...Prada or Frada?
After rehydrating at the rooftop bar at the Museum of Contemporary Arts, we decided it was time to take in some culture.  The Shanghai Art museum was within walking distance, so we took the 10 minute walk to a museum Frommer’s called  “superb” and “full of fantastic old photographs in their original fittings”. 

When we entered the museum, we were told admission was free.  I figured that the museum was running a Golden Week special.  We walked up the stairs to see a minute clothing exhibit.  That was the only art in the museum. 

What was the artist thinking when creating this installation?

This exhibit completely redefines minimalism.

I guess the museum folks decided to clean and renovate the galleries during the break. 

We figured it was time to cut our losses, go home, and have a comfy night in.

Saturday was a brand new day.  The sun was peeking through the clouds, so we decided to take an elevator ride to the top of the Pearl Tower.  Built in 1994, the Pearl Tower was the tallest structure in China until the World Financial Center was built.  I did not care that it wasn’t the tallest structure in Shanghai.  Since the moment I saw it lit at night during our information trip in April, I knew I had to take a ride up to the top.

I could not wait to head to the top of the tower.

Needless to say, the view from the 269th floor of the tower was literally breathtaking.  I am normally not afraid of heights, but when I stepped onto the Plexiglas floor I had a minor panic attack.  “What would happen if this thing cracked?” kept playing through my mind.  

This was the view down.  

 To make matters worse, Chris told me,
“Don’t worry honey, Plexiglas is very sturdy.  That is unless the manufacturers messed up the chemistry of the materials.” 

If Plexiglas is so sturdy, why are you hanging on to a handrail and standing on a beam???

We were on the next elevator down to the lobby.

Saturday night we headed out for Turkish food...yummy!
After dinner, we decided to hang out at the House of Blues and Jazz.  Good times!
After a very relaxing week, I was very ready to get back to work!  

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Pottying in Shanghai!

If you are squeamish, get easily grossed out, or get annoyed by toilet humor, please do yourself a favor and stop reading this post. Please know that I do not intend to offend anyone, but I do feel a strong need to educate my readers on the good, bad and ugly of Shanghainese toilet culture. 

I have been mentally composing this post for quite some time.  I was just waiting for the appropriate time to post this information.  After having to teach the word, “poop”, to a second grade student, and reprimanding a fourth grade student for drawing a steaming waste pile under a monkey, I felt it was time to face the music.

The good news is the student understands the concept of usually, sometimes, and never!

Like most things in Shanghai, toilets are very diverse. 
Often times when I need to go outside of my apartment, I find myself praying, please Lord, let the toilet I am about to see be a good one.  Or at least let it have a clean seat.  About 70% of the time, He delivers.

Some upscale restaurants and apartments that cater to Japanese tenants have very high-end toilets.  These toilets sport buttons that will allow your bottom to be warmed and cleansed while or after doing your business. 

This is an example of a Japanese toilet console.  I thought universal remotes were complicated.  Source: Wikipedia Commons
I have never had the opportunity to use a Japanese toilet, and am not sure that I would know how to program my desired settings if I did get an opportunity to use one.  Props to the Japanese; at least you can sit while doing your business, and you will emerge from the bathroom feeling fresh and clean.

Many Chinese toilets are very similar to the good old western toilets I was trained to use 33 years ago.  Since Shanghai wanted to prove its status as an international city a few years ago, many establishments have installed western toilets.   Fortunately, our apartment has this type of toilet.  The only confusing part of my home toileting experience is deciding which button to push. 

When do I push each button? PS, don't press both buttons at once.  The water will keep running.

FYI, both buttons do the same thing, so I just push either one when I am finished and go on my merry way.

Unfortunately most schools and older buildings have the most disgusting, confusing type of toilet…the squattie.

Introducing the squattie.  Chinese folks like them because they are hygenic. 
The first time I encountered a squattie was on Easter Sunday at McDonald’s in Xuhui.  I walked in the stall expecting a toilet, and much to my surprise, was greeted with porcelain, urinal like object in the floor.  I had no clue as to what to do, and felt like I was two years old again.  I needed to be squattie trained!

Many questions flooded my mind.  Do I stand?  Do I sit?  Will I clog this thing if I flush toilet paper?  Where is the toilet paper?  Will this thing handle solid and liquid waste?  Do I face the door or the wall when using it? 

To make matters worse, I didn’t feel comfortable asking anyone these questions.  All toilet related matters are discreet in my culture.  By some miracle I did what I thought I needed to do, and did not splatter myself (thank God!).

This is one of my workplace squatties.

Fortunately, I was semi-squattie trained as part of my job orientation.  The direct quote from one of my superiors was,

“About the toilets… you need to get used to them.  This is China.”

As a service to you, dear reader, I will share my limited squattie training wisdom.

Question #1: Do I stand?  Do I sit? 
Standing or squatting is fine.  DON’T SIT!

Question #2: Will I clog this thing if I flush toilet paper?
I don’t know, but don’t risk it.   Be like a native and throw TP and other personal hygiene items in the trash.

Question #3:  Where is the toilet paper?
Many times, it is non-existent.  Fortunately many stores sell multipacks of purse sized tissue pouches that are similar to Kleenex.  Stock up on these frequently and bring a pack to the restroom when you gotta go.

I thought these were only meant for blowing your nose...

Question #4: Will this thing handle solid and liquid waste?
Liquids are fine, but the jury is still out about solids.  I know it is a good idea to make friends with an establishment that has a western toilet if you work in a squattie only environment.  One of my teacher friends mentioned she made friends with a local restaurant owner across the street from her school just in case of emergency. 

Question #5: Do I face the door or the wall when using it? 
It is a matter of personal preference.  Just don’t splatter!!

As a bonus tidbit of information, carry hand sanitizer.  Soap may not be readily available when you need it.

I hope I have covered this topic as tactfully as possible.  Mom, if you are still reading this I am sorry if I have embarrassed you.  To everyone else, I hope this post hasn’t been a waste of time. J

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Golden Week Part I: Suzhou

Since Chris and I had eight days off for Mooncake Festival and Chinese National day, we decided to do what any self-respecting Chinamen would do on a holiday…travel. One of Chris’ Bosch Charleston friends, Christian, lives in Suzhou and invited us to his home for a couple days of exploration, barbeque, and football!  So we sent Ditka and Leia to Jia Liang kennels to play with their puppy friends and we got out of town.

Suzhou here we come!
Ditka and Leia loved running around in a big, grassy yard at Dr. Jenny's!

The first part of our adventure was the train ride itself.  A train trip in China was on my bucket list so Chris booked two first class tickets on the G-Train to Suzhou for Monday afternoon.  The G-Train is a bullet train that travels upwards of 200 miles per hour!  Fortunately, a 2-hour car trip was trimmed down to a 25-minute breeze! 

Chris outside the Shanghai railway station.

We weren't the only ones who had the idea to get out of town.

All Aboard!!! (They did not say that.  I just imagined they would.)
One of the perks of a first class train ticket is free OJ!  Gotta love it!

I <3 the train!

Upon arrival to Suzhou we were greeted by Christian, his wife Sabine, and our 13 month old tour guide, Henrick.  We spent the evening catching up over the Lions game.  It was wonderful to settle in with some Charleston friends!

The next morning Henrick suggested that we say good morning to the fish at Jinji Hu lake, so we fueled up on Starbucks and took a stroll.  Many people were out flying kites, riding bikes, fishing, and enjoying the beautiful autumn weather.
The fish are great!  Let me show you...

This is the view from our side of the lake!
The park had a fabo Don Quixote statue!

I need to get an Angry Birds kite!

After our stroll, Henrick was a little sleepy, so Christian took over tour guide duties and took us to Shangtang St. for lunch and a little shopping.

Sorry guys, I will catch you later!
Stepping on Shangtang St. was like stepping into China 1100 years ago.  The street is lined with traditional Chinese architecture, and people enjoy floating from one end of the street to the other in the canal adjacent to the buildings.  As we were walking, I felt like my high school history book was coming to life.

An arial shot of Shangtan St.
Shangtan Lu.

Cheers from lunch!

Chris strikes a pose in the middle of shopping.
If you travel a little too far, you may run into some hairy crab, a Suzhou delicacy.

Some nice ladies cook up some honey flavored taffy.
Chris takes a bite of the yummy honey candy.
Large, silk masks were hung around the streets.

After our stroll, we headed back to Henrick’s house for the best cheeseburger I have had since I arrived in Shanghai, a little football (soccer) in the backyard, and some American football!  (Short lesson…if you are an expat, the NFL network has a FABULOUS streaming package you can subscribe to overseas.  You can catch every game live, and the site allows you to play any game you like whenever you want to see it! )

The following day, Henrick was a little sleepy so Chris and I decided to take a trip to the Humble Administrator’s Garden solo.  A Ming Dynasty poet who was persecuted by the East Imperial Secret Service developed the garden in the 1600’s.   All the man wanted was to have a place where he could build his own house, plant trees, and grow vegetables, so he worked with a friend to create a beautiful haven in Suzhou.  Today, the garden is owned by the Chinese government and is protected by the UN as a World Heritage site.  Chris and I thought that this would be the perfect place to unleash our inner shutterbug.  Unfortunately, so did half of the population of Suzhou.

After we purchased scalped tickets and shoved through the crowds, we entered one of the most picturesque gardens I have ever seen.

Unfortunately the theme song from Gilligan's Island got stuck in my head when I saw this house.

After about 30 minutes, I noticed many lenses and iPhones pointing my way.  Apparently large, blonde (by bottle) women were something of a novelty in these parts.   Eventually, I just started to smile and wave at the cameras.  Mothers approached me wanting me to pose for a shot with their children. Strangers wanted a photo op. I don’t know if I felt like a zoo animal, or a D-list celebrity.  I do know that I take lots of pictures of random Chinese happenings to post on this blog, so perhaps this was payback.  I knew the pictures would be taken regardless of my approval, so I may as well smile and give them something good.

Me with random stranger #1.

Me on my way to become a D-List celebrity
After our garden photo shoot, it was time to grab lunch, do a little more toy shopping and take a 25-minute train trip back home. 

Overall, we had a great time.  We enjoyed spending time with friends and exploring new territory.  For the second half of our golden week, we will be tourists in our own city.  Stay tuned!  There is more to come!

Monday, October 1, 2012

Moon Cake Festival

Every autumn, Chinese folks take a weeklong break to celebrate their country and the end of the harvest season.  During this celebration, called the Mid Autumn Festival, people eat moon cakes and gaze at the goddess in the moon.  Moon cakes are small pie like pastries that are traditionally filled with lotus paste or sweetened red bean paste.

To quote Chris, moon cakes are China's way of letting you know they have a sense of humor.

There are many different stories about how this tradition started, most of which confuse me.  I think the best version is:

Around 2170 B.C., the earth once had ten suns circling over it; each took its turn to illuminate to the earth. One day all ten suns appeared together, scorching the earth with their heat. A strong and tyrannical archer named Hou Yi saved the earth. He succeeded in shooting down nine of the suns. One day, Hou Yi stole the elixir of life from a goddess. However his beautiful wife Chang Er drank the elixir of life in order to save the people from her husband's tyrannical rule. After drinking it, she found herself floating and flew to the moon. Hou Yi loved his divinely beautiful wife so much; he didn't shoot down the moon. 

Fast forward this story a few thousand years.  The Mongols were running China.  The folks in the Ming dynasty decided it was time to overthrow the government.  Mid Autumn festival was around the corner so the Mings decided to bake messages into the moon cakes detailing their plan of action.  They then started a rumor that a plague was coming, and moon cakes were the only cure.  As expected, the cakes were snagged up, the battle plan was spread and the revolution was successful.

When we went through our culture class with Jie, we learned that today people exchange moon cakes with friends and colleagues before Mid-Autumn festival.  So Chris and I decided to pick out some moon cakes for some of the people who have made our lives easier in China. 

We went to the nearest Carrefour (our grocery store), and saw literally hundreds of different brands of moon cakes ranging in price from a couple RMB ($.50) to 1200 RMB ($250).  All of the cakes were wrapped in Chinese packaging, so I had no clue what flavor to expect.  I felt completely lost and overwhelmed.  I did not want to give junky moon cakes, so I decided to take matters in my own hands and hold a moon cake taste test.  We picked up 3 moderately priced moon cakes, and headed for home for the tasting.

Our first moon cakes.  We were do ready to dig in!

This is a  cross section shot of the moon cakes.  The red bean paste cake is on the right; the lotus paste cake is on the left.

I could barely contain my excitement when we got home!  I was going to sample a tasty part of Chinese culture.  I unwrapped the cakes, took out a knife and sliced off a sample-sized chunk of one of the red bean paste pastries.  I took a small bite, and choked it down.  I am by no means a picky eater, but this was horrible. 

All hope was not lost; we still had our lotus pastries.  Sample number two tasted like stale brownie, dehydrated peanut butter, and paste.  

Chris was eager to help with the taste test.
He takes a preliminary sniff.
His face says it all!
All I had to say about these cakes was best shown in this picture.

My not so secret moon cake message.

There was no way that I would feel comfortable serving these moon cakes to my worst enemy.  I decided that I needed to ask some of my Chinese friends which brands were tasty.  Fortunately, a couple of friends wrote down the Chinese characters for the decent moon cakes.  Chris snagged a couple of cakes on the way home from work and we sampled more cakes. 

We brace ourselves for the worst...

This was a lotus paste moon cake with a hard boiled quail's egg in the center.  It tasted better than it sounds.

Success!  They were by no means perfect, but at least I was able to finish the cake.  Chinese folks must have a completely different flavor palate than mine.   Moon cakes are not something that I would eat every day.  I am happy to report that Sophie, my new Chinese teacher, commented about how we purchased tasty moon cakes. 

As fate would have it, moon cake festival happened to fall on the 16th anniversary of my first date with Chris.  On our first date, we went to Ben and Jerry’s for ice cream.  As a tradition, we usually go out to dinner on the anniversary of that evening and top it off with an ice cream run.  This year, I needed to find a way to marry both of these traditions.

The answer would come easily thanks to a little ice cream place called Haagen Dazs.  

It is Haagen-Dazs!  It has to be good!
To tickle the palates of many Westerners, Haagen Dazs created ice-cream moon cakes!  Ever since I saw the commercial for the little cakes in a cab, I knew I had to try one.

So on moon cake day we headed to the Jing’an Temple area and picked up a petite collection of cakes from the Haagen Dazs vendors and rushed home to place them in the freezer.

Chris picks up the mooncakes from the tent.  The cakes are packed in dry ice so they will make the subway trip home in tact!
To quote Barney Stinson from How I Met Your Mother, these cakes were going to be LEGENDARY!  I figured we would follow tradition and wait until after dinner to celebrate.

We went to Nova Cool Docks where we dined on French cuisine on the patio, and gazed at the moon as per both Wilcox and Chinese tradition. 

This was our view from dinner.  Notice the full moon!

When we got home, we immediately broke out the moon cakes. 

Haagen Dazs never disappoints!

I am happy to report that I savored every bite of the white chocolate, strawberry and vanilla yumminess.  Ice cream moon cakes are amazing and a must try for people everywhere! 

So tasty!
This whole experience made me realize while I am not Chinese, and will never be Chinese, China will always have a special place in my heart.  Hence, Chris and I made a pact to celebrate moon cake festival each year regardless of where we live.  Even if the cakes are really ice cream!