Shitty People Being Shitty to Other Shitty People, But Not Always

It can seem like there are days here where I see nothing but shitty people being shitty to other shitty people. Today I saw some girls shove a blind man out of their way. There’s no shortage of cars cutting off pedestrians, cyclists, or other cars because everyone is in a hurry and thinks their own time and safety is more important than others’. I hate when people park right in the middle of the road or on a sidewalk, completely blocking the flow of traffic for everyone else because someone was too lazy to go find a parking spot while they ran into 7-11. Or how about the famous incident of the little girl getting hit by a car and no one stopping to help her while she died in the street a few years back? Seeing shitty, selfish, greedy behavior like this all the time can really bring a person down.

However, I have managed to find a group of wonderful, wonderful people who are the exact opposite of all this. Volunteering is a pretty new concept in China, a lot of Chinese people don’t even really understand what it means. I’ve been working with a couple of animal rescue organizations and a Trap Neuter Release organization in Shanghai and have had the opportunity to get to know some of the most selfless people I’ve ever met in my life. It’s refreshing to work with them and to be reminded that not every single person in Shanghai is a shit bird who couldn’t care less about the people around them.

These people dedicate so much of themselves to trying to ease the pain and suffering of animals, especially stray animals. They spend countless hours and their own hard earned cash bringing stray animals to the vet and then placing them in homes. I work mostly with the TNR organization and one of the members, a guy named Steven has become a bit of a hero to me. He spends most of his mornings before work at the vet checking on his strays, goes to work and then spends most of his evenings catching stray cats in neighborhoods (mine included) where TNR programs are on-going and then goes home to a home full of dogs and cats that he fosters until they can be placed in permanent homes. You’d never think he was anything special if you just saw him on the street. He’s just a regular guy. Him and a few others have spent months pursuing official NPO status for the TNR organization and just recently got it approved. They’ve designed this amazing plan for not only carrying out TNR, but also dedicating time and resources on educating people on proper pet care and how to prevent the growth of Shanghai’s stray animal population. I’ve learned that many Chinese people have some really interesting and sad misunderstandings about pets and pet care that end poorly for our furry friends. They are trying to educate people against this kind of unscientific, superstitious thinking.

Another unsung hero is Chris Lau, founder of ThinkAdoption who at any one time has about 20 pets in his home. Some of them are his own, most of them are waiting for adoption. I myself have two cats and I feel that they take up a lot of my time (they’re so messy!), I have no idea how people like Chris can hold down full time jobs and then manage to care for so many animals! Especially in a large city like Shanghai where you can’t just put the dogs outside in your yard while you go to work. It takes remarkable dedication and selflessness.

Some people have asked me why I spend so much time and money on trying to help stray animals instead of trying to help people. I have two reasons. 1. The situation of all stray animals was caused by humans – people not being responsible pet owners, releasing them when they become a burden and not de-sexing them. I feel like we owe it to them. 2. People indirectly benefit from taking care of the stray animal problem. How? Well, stray animals can sometimes carry rabies. I saw a news report yesterday that said that 10 people in Beijing died from rabies last year because of stray dogs. Stray cats make a lot of noise at night when they’re in heat, so de-sexing them solves that problem and also helps them to lead longer, healthier lives. I am frequently woken up by the cats in my neighborhood fighting or getting it on. I’ve managed to spay/neuter 5 of them already, but I probably have 10 more to go before we have the problem mostly under control.

If anyone is interested in learning more about these organizations, I recommend you check them out on Weibo or WeChat. Search for ThinkAdoption, PPAR (Paw Pals Animal Rescue) or TNR Action at TNRaction.com.

A Furry Friend in Need!

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My new neighborhood is full of stray cats, which breaks my heart. I love animals, but especially cats. I hate to see any living thing suffering, particularly animals who have so little say in what happens to them. I recently discovered that Shanghai has a TNR (Trap, Neuter, Release) program and I have volunteered to help organize events and capture stray cats to be brought in for spaying/neutering, before returning them where we found them. Some people may think that returning them defies logic. Why not adopt them or put them to sleep? Because cats are territorial and if you remove them from an area, then more will just move in and with extra resources and territory, instincts will kick in and tell them to reproduce. Keeping spayed and neutered strays in their original territory prevents the growth of the stray population in more than one way.

I’ve been feeding a litter of kittens I found for the last two weeks and they seemed to be pretty healthy (except for conjunctivitis, which I am treating), with the exception of one, small black kitten. She is the smallest of the group and seemed mostly ok, but I made sure to give her extra food and keep the other kitties from stealing it from her. It wasn’t enough. She began leaving the safety of the bushes where they live and wandering around listlessly in the lane, where she was vulnerable to cars, mopeds and pedestrians staring at their phones instead of where they are going. When a stray begins approaching people like that, it’s typically a cry for help. They know they’re in trouble and asking for help the only way they know how. I ignored it and thought she would get better on her own. I came home from the gym one night and found her laying on the sidewalk, pulling herself around in circles with her front legs, unable to move her hind legs. I put her into a box and brought her into my house. I wrapped her with towels and turned on the heat to stop her shivering and fed her. I began looking online to see if I could find a veterinarian that took emergency calls, and of course, no one answered their phones. I finally remembered my contact at the TNR program who helped me find a vet that would see her so late (it was about 9:30pm when I found her, after 11 before I made it to the clinic, which was a million miles away). When I finally got there, he was really kind and patient. I think he took good care of her, but he really didn’t think she would make it through the night. She did make it through the night, and seemed to be a lot better the next day. She had blood in her urine and still couldn’t walk or go to the bathroom by herself. Today she had no blood in her urine, but still, no walking or relieving herself without someone pushing on her belly to get it out. The vet took some x rays and couldn’t find any spinal damage or other abnormalities, so he thinks she has nerve damage near her hips. The good news is that she has feeling in her toes and he could see her muscles moving when she was trying to poop, even if nothing was coming out. He said that with the right kind of care, it’s possible that she could regain use of her legs and bowels, but that will mean having a person available to help her go to the bathroom a couple times a day and providing physical therapy like treatment to help her nerves regenerate. She has a shot, but not without the right kind of person to help her. I wish like hell I could be that person because I have a hard time believing that someone else would give her the right attention, but also because I blame myself for not taking her to a vet sooner. Starting next week I’m going to be on business trips until December, so I just can’t do it. I really hope that some of you can help me spread the word or even volunteer to help this poor little kitty. She doesn’t have fleas or any contagious diseases (I had her tested) and the conjunctivitis of her eyes is getting better every day and will completely heal without any blindness.

Apartment Hunting

The last time I had to hunt for an apartment in China was in 2004 in the city of Kunming. That experience didn’t leave me with a good impression of the process. I remember walking into real estate offices and asking them what kind of fees they charged and having the answers vary wildly. There was no city wide standard and you had to bargain with them. The same went for rent and trying to get your landlord to cover utilities, as well as bargaining over how many months you had to pay in advance. Some landlords would try to make you pay a year’s rent up front, which was a problem because A. What student has that kind of cash laying around? and B. The real estate agencies wouldn’t step in if the landlord decided three months later that they wanted their place back and wouldn’t refund your rent. I knew a couple of people who had this happen to them. One guy had spent a ton of money to remodel/decorate a gutted apartment that he rented for cheap and once the landlord saw how nice it was, he kicked my friend out of the apartment so he could move in himself. Basically, the whole process completely lacked transparency and we all know that foreigners are highly unlikely to come out on top in a situation that requires bargaining.

Even though that was 10 years ago and occurred in a “backwards” city, I couldn’t help but drag my feet on starting the hunt, especially because my company was paying for 6 weeks in a serviced apartment. However, living in a hotel got old quickly and I decided to stop putting off the inevitable. My friends had all told me how terrible the apartments in Shanghai are, either they’re way over priced or really shitty. Many of them had spent a month or more before finding a place they liked. I called an agent that a friend of a friend had recommended. I was prepared for the worst after hearing the stories my other friends told of dealing with agents who tried to get them into apartments that cost twice their budget or agents who were simply stupid. I met up with the agent, who had prepared a list of four places to check out initially. They weren’t bad, but not great. One of them was on the first floor (i.e. noisy) and another one had a landlord that I knew would be trouble. After looking at these places, I went back to the agent’s office and he talked to me about their fees, which were exactly what I’d heard from other people and I was able to look at apartment listings right on his computer that showed how much rent the landlords were asking. It was far more straightforward this time around and I felt like I wasn’t getting ripped off because I’m a foreigner. We looked at a few more places and not being overly impressed with any of them, I asked him to call me if anything else came up and I headed to a different neighborhood to look around. I made the mistake of going to a small, privately owned agency (not a chain). The agent showed me several shit holes and was really pushy about trying to get me to agree on the spot to take one of them. I used the excuse that I was going to take pictures of the places to show my husband and see what he thought. I had no intention of renting anything from this guy. However, he proceeded to call me several times a day for the next few days until I finally answered and he proceeded to yell at me for not renting from him. I just said “嗯嗯,知道了,嗯,挂了啊” and then I hung up and didn’t answer his calls anymore. I didn’t care because the first agent managed to find me a great place later that evening! He found me an awesome little place in one of Shanghai’s traditional style homes, the 石库门. It’s within my budget, recently remodeled, only 200m to a subway stop with easy access to my office and the airport for business trips. There are also a ton of restaurants nearby, which is necessary because I don’t cook.

Finding an apartment was so much easier this time around. Of course, part of it was that I got lucky, but a large part of it is that things have changed so much. Well, actually it’s hard to compare Kunming and Shanghai. I haven’t been back to Kunming in a long time, so I’m not sure if the apartment hunting process has improved to this level yet. However, this experience made me realize that I need to be careful about letting my earlier experiences from over 10 years ago impact my opinions and attitudes now if I don’t have any current experience to back it up. China is funny in that some things change so fast, so much, but other things don’t and seem like they never will.

My Crazy White Family in China – A Humbling Experience

Even though I’ve been in and out of China for the last 11 years and taking every opportunity I could to visit or stay for extended periods of time, my parents have always kind of had this idea that “the China thing was just a phase.” After my decision to take a job in Shanghai, my family must have realized that maybe I wasn’t kidding around this whole time and they finally decided to come visit me. Admittedly, I half agreed to it because I didn’t think they’d actually go through with it. If my dad had had his way, the trip never would have happened. My dad is a large man who doesn’t like loud noises, warm weather, airplanes, or crowds. You can already see how this was a bad idea. My mom on the other hand…it’s weird because even though I’ve known her my whole life, I’ve only known her as a mom and not as a person, if that makes sense, so it seemed odd to me her suddenly wanting to see the world and not do whatever it is that she does in the house all day. Her wanting to travel, much less go to Asia seemed so out of character, but I learned that she actually used to visit Europe quite frequently when she was in high school (wut?) and has always had a strong desire to see the world and know what’s out there, but work and family ended up taking up all of her time for the last few decades and it just never happened. I guess me and my youngest sister’s seemingly random wanderlust was inherited. 

My dad had done a lot of complaining and making of excuses in order to avoid this trip, but my mom, getting close to retirement and being able to taste the freedom, wasn’t about to let him ruin this. She went behind his back and applied for passports, applied for visas and bought plane tickets. In spite of his yelling and carrying on after learning of her covert activities, all she could do was giggle and say “he’ll get over it.” My father maintained that he would have the flu the day of the flight or that the customs agents would take one look at his passport photo and not let him into the country on the grounds of being too ugly. 

They started their trip in South Korea where my little sister is living and much to my father’s dismay, they allowed him into the country. I wasn’t in SK with them, but my sister provided me with frequent updates about how difficult our dad was being. He didn’t like Korean food, he thought Seoul was dirty, the subways were torture, etc. Hearing about it from my sister was all quite funny until I realized that in a couple of days, it would be my problem. Initially, I had hoped that I could get them to come to China first and then go on to Korea so as to avoid dealing with the inevitable disappointment that China was all the things my father hated about Korea times 10. I didn’t get my wish and when my parents finally arrived in Beijing, my dad’s nerves were already frayed from the stress of traveling and being surrounded by people he couldn’t understand. My mom was happily taking pictures of everything and pointedly ignoring my dad. My sister arrived with them and the first thing she said to me was “I’m not in charge anymore, this is your party and I’m staying out of it.” I knew I was in trouble. 

Up until my sister said that to me I had been thinking that perhaps we would take the subway to the hotel since it was quite far from the airport and they didn’t have much luggage. I decided maybe they weren’t ready for that and we took a taxi. Needless to say, my father basically went into shock over the fact that China was everything he hated about Korea times 10. I knew it was going to be a long 10 days. 

I had intentionally started the trip in Beijing because I KNEW my dad would positively hate it (they wanted to see the Great Wall). I don’t like Beijing even on it’s best day, but he had no hope. I wanted to rip off the band aid and then head south for Nanjing and Shanghai because I was pretty sure he would like those cities better.  If nothing else, I know my way around them and it would be less stressful for me. My dad struggled to not lose his temper with me. I had been trying to mentally prep myself for this trip for the previous few weeks. I knew that having them visit was going to test my patience because I’m used to being in China, my expat friends are used to it, they all speak Chinese and everyone can take care of themselves and no one needs things explained to them. That was not the case for my family and I really had to try to remind myself what it was like when I first got there and didn’t know anything. I tried to remember the patience with which other expats had answered my questions and how hard it was to understand people, but I only lasted about 30 minutes before my dad and I were yelling at each other over ordering food or some dumb thing like that. What I hadn’t counted on was that my dad didn’t think I knew what I was doing and he second guessed every thing I said and every decision I made. He argued with me about transportation choices, where we should go and when we should go there, what the food was, etc. It really pissed me off and I felt very insulted that my dad seemed to still view me as a dumb kid that needed help doing everything. I voiced my frustrations to a friend of mine who pointed out something that I didn’t have the clarity to realize at that time. My dad was probably very uncomfortable with the idea of me taking care of him instead of the other way around. It bothered him that he had to rely on me for literally everything. He couldn’t get a taxi, ask for directions, or order food without my help! Unlike my mom and my sister who were fine with this arrangement, my dad still wanted to feel like he could handle himself. Also, I bet part of his insecurities were borne of the fact that he has spent my ENTIRE LIFE playing tricks on me and trolling me at every turn. He was probably (rightfully) concerned that I would take advantage of the situation and take 31 years of revenge on him. I didn’t, but only because I can’t stand to be that predictable. I’ll get him…but it’ll be on a nice sunny day in his own home, when he’s least suspecting it. 

This realization made it easier for me to be patient with him, although we still had our share of heated debates over various matters. He calmed down significantly once we left Beijing and we all managed to have a good time. Both of my parents really enjoyed Shanghai. I didn’t know what to do with them there because usually when I go to Shanghai it’s just so I can eat Western food and go drinking with my friends. I’d actually never done any of the touristy stuff there. One of my friends recommended I take them on one of the city bus tours…the ones where you buy a ticket and you can get off and on at any stop you want, as many times as you want. I thought maybe my family would find that tiring, but that was actually their favorite thing from the whole trip. They got to see People’s Square, Yu Garden, Pu Dong, Shanghai old street, the Bund and a bunch of other places without hassling with taxis or anything like that. A few weeks later, my dad even admitted that Shanghai wasn’t so bad and after he forgot about the horrors of the plane ride, he might be tempted to go back and visit me again. I think maybe I won’t be home then. 

How to Keep Your Spouse Entertained in China?

So, now that I’ve completed graduate school I suppose it’s time to get a job and be an adult again. As it turns out, my husband didn’t really buy into my plan of being a trophy wife (he says the age difference isn’t enough for me to qualify) and pursue hobbies full-time.  Originally, my plan was to try and find a job somewhere on the US west coast, but it seems that it probably would have taken a very long time to find something suitable and neither of us thought it was a great idea for me to be unemployed for so long. Also, it seems that unless you’re an engineer, computer programmer, or some kind of tech person, finding a decent job on the west coast is very difficult. I found plenty of openings with job descriptions that seemed as if they were written for me, but I didn’t hear back from most of them and the two (yeah, TWO out of about FORTY) companies that did provide any kind of response provided vague emails in response to my applications and I have no idea why I wasn’t considered further for the positions.  Oh well.  At the end of the day, I ended up accepting a pretty solid offer from a very famous American company doing a job that sounds challenging, but rewarding and interesting.  The only problem with it is that it’s in Shanghai.  If I were single, I would have started my job hunt in Shanghai and not have felt any guilt about it, but how could I expect my husband to tolerate me being out of the country again for so long? We’ve been married for four years and between my schooling and his job, we’ve actually only lived together in the same place for one year. After long and thoughtful consideration, he informed me that he thought I should take the job in Shanghai because he couldn’t imagine a more perfect job for me if he tried and he didn’t want to be the reason I passed up such a great opportunity.  What a great guy, right?  It gets better.  A few more days pass and he announces that he’s going to quit his job and go to Shanghai with me because he can’t stand being apart anymore and because he’s realized that his job sucks.  This is fantastic news, but now I’m scared…what am I going to do with him in Shanghai?  Sure, you don’t really need to be able to speak Chinese to get by there, but I am going to be working long hours and will be out of town often. What’s he going to do with himself? I imagine him spiraling into a video game induced black hole.  He wants to get a job or possibly go to school there…there are some international programs, but he wants to do engineering and we can’t find any internationally accredited graduate programs in engineering for him. He has no interest in learning Chinese, so aside from teaching English, I’m not really sure what kind of job he’s going to get…I’m afraid he’s going to get bored and want a baby.

The other thing is…China is tough. I think that in order to survive there, China has to be viewed as a huge joke and you have to be in on the joke. Otherwise, how do people who are used to sanitation, things working the way they’re supposed to, safe food, etc, get by in a country like that? My husband and I actually met in Japan where we were both working for an extended time and he loved it there, but even in Japan foreigners can have “I hate Japan days” and not want to leave their homes.  My husband had his fair share of those and I’m worried that will translate into everyday or most days being an “I hate China day.” I suspect that China is much harder to handle than Japan is for most Americans.

Hopefully I’m worried for nothing and my husband will surprise me with his flexibility and sense of adventure. He has a tendency to do the exact opposite of what I think he’ll do, so I think for now I’m going to make sure he knows I think he won’t handle it well so that when he gets there, he will handle it well just to prove me wrong. I’ve also been having him listen to podcasts about life in China and Chinese culture so that it doesn’t seem quite so daunting. I’m trying to teach him some basic phrases, but he so far will only say “ching chang chong” and insist that he’s speaking Chinese to me and I should understand it. *face palm* Maybe someone out there has some good tips for helping a loved one adjust to life in another country? I would really love to hear any and all advice!

Thamestown – a Chinese Ghost Town

Earlier this week I completed one of the things on my “40 Before 40” list.  I’ve read loads of articles about China’s Ghost Towns, which are housing developments typically created for the super rich that include luxury housing, retail space and parks.  They’re also usually built in very inconvenient locations, way on the outskirts of a city and no where near people’s jobs.  I went to Thamestown on the edge of Shanghai with some friends and we spent almost an hour on the subway before we got there and still had to take a 15 minute taxi ride from the subway station, so it’s definitely not a desirable location by Chinese standards.  The village was modeled after a British city and is full of cliches and British architecture with Chinese characteristics.  It also wasn’t exactly what I would call a ghost town.  There were tons of people there.  Granted, none of them lived there, but it wasn’t even close to empty.  Most of the people were there to take wedding pictures or to rent bicycles and ride around enjoying the scenery.  Most of the stores were empty.  There were a few cafes that looked like they were in business, but a majority of the businesses were wedding photography studios.  Most of the landscaping hadn’t been maintained well, there were squaters in some of the shops and even though they wouldn’t let us into the residential area, we could tell that every visible home was empty.  The shutters were falling off, the paint was peeling, yards were overgrown, etc.  Thamestown employs a small army of migrant workers to walk around picking up after the tourists and they seemed to be the only ones who actually live there.

I didn’t know what to think about it.  Obviously, Thamestown is ridiculous.  It looked like a bunch of Chinese people who had seen “Mary Poppins” a few times too many got together and decided how Britain might look.  Then someone invested a crap ton of RMB into this project (probably the government) and now it’s just sitting there decaying and serving as a backdrop for photos.  Maybe the investment will pay off if Shanghai’s city center hurries up and expands enough to encompass Thamestown, but no one is maintaining the place in the meantime, so I suspect that the more likely outcome is that it will sit there for a few more years until the government decides to start it all over again.  They’ll tear down Thamestown and rebuild something just as unnecessary just so they can provide construction jobs for migrant workers and inflate their GDP.  A lot of people are becoming very wealthy from this constant cycle of build, tear down, build, but in the long run, it’s doing more harm than good.  Constant construction creates a lot of waste and demand for materials, as well as air and noise pollution. Since wealthy developers and the government (who claims to be trying to control the price of housing) are generally one and the same, I believe that this cycle also leads to increases in the cost of housing.  I hear there’s a fake Paris around here somewhere.  Maybe I need to check that out.

The inside of this church was weird.  I can't quite put my finger on why.  It was evident that it was never used for anything remotely churchy and the stained glass was fake.

The inside of this church was weird. I can’t quite put my finger on why. It was evident that it was never used for anything remotely churchy and the stained glass was fake.

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Harry Potter

Harry Potter

Princess Diana.  How else would you know it was supposed to be Britain?

Princess Diana. How else would you know it was supposed to be Britain?

The CCTV camera is unintentionally accurate.

The CCTV camera is unintentionally accurate.

This guy really tied it all together.

This guy really tied it all together.

_MG_1649 _MG_1646

This outfit will be hard to explain to her future children.

This outfit will be hard to explain to her future children.

_MG_1590

Chinese People on a Plane!

I can’t remember the first time I took an international flight, but I do know that they get more unbearable each time…probably all the cut backs on airline amenities and services in recent years have something to do with that, but I’m pretty sure it’s mostly that I’m losing patience with the whole process.  Flights scheduled at ridiculous hours, showing up to the airport super early to deal with those stupid automated check in machines that never work and the airport security that just keeps getting more and more invasive…ugh, the list goes on.  I just completed the trip from the American South West to Shanghai yesterday and when I left the airport I just couldn’t handle the thought of dealing with the crowded subway with luggage so I took a taxi.  The first thing the driver said to me wasn’t “Where are you going?”  it was “What happened to you?”  That is a clear indication that I looked as terrible as I felt.  Originally my flight was going to include a direct flight to Shanghai from Seattle, but in my infinite wisdom, I had purchased a new rolling camera bag for all of my gear and it turned out to be much bigger than advertised (not carry on size) and the first leg of my trip was going to be on a small aircraft into a regional airport.  The attendant and I  had a heated discussion about whether or not I should check a back with roughly $15,000 worth of photography equipment in it and long story short, she ended up booking me a whole new itinerary that routed me through Tokyo via Atlanta, before flying on to Shanghai. It was a much longer trip, but I really had no other 办法.

Part of the reason why I was willing to do this is kinda mean…I dread flying with Chinese people.  There, I said it.  Chinese people love 热闹, which to me translates as “chaotic, noisy, difficult to tolerate.”  They seem to view international flights as a 13 hour party in the sky.  They tend to shout to one another across the plane, get up and walk around to randomly strike up conversations or watch movies over your shoulder, and let their children run wild and make as much noise as they want.  In short, it’s not peaceful and you’re not going to get a lot of sleep or reading done.  Japanese people on the other hand are kind of the opposite, they tend to be extremely quiet and aren’t ones for small talk, so I thought that being routed through Tokyo was going to result in a much happier flight for me.  You can probably tell already that I was horribly mistaken.  I lived in Japan for two years and only heard Japanese children cry on two occasions.  I don’t know how Japanese parents do that, but apparently the only Japanese parents who didn’t get the memo were on my flight.  They had this horrible demon child that cried non-stop the whole way.  What really got me was that it’s parents simply put on their Bose noise canceling headphones and went to sleep!  They obviously knew that their stupid baby was going to be a problem and were definitely looking out for number one.  I had to keep reminding myself that karma is a bitch.

On the flip side, I’ve had some funny experiences flying with Chinese people.  My last trip home I was seated next to this older couple who didn’t speak English.  They looked very mainland…the lady had super permed hair that had been dyed that orangey color that happens when Asians try to go blonde and she was wearing this crazy floral pantsuit with all of the colors and fake Nikes.  Her husband was a pretty typical Chinese man…pants pulled up to his armpits, white socks with dark trousers and he tried to smoke on the plane.  They told me that their son lived in Seattle and they were going to visit him.  When the stewardess passed out the customs forms, they were only in English and I could see that they were going to have some trouble.  I let them sweat it for a few minutes.  They were looking around to see what everyone else was doing and they pulled out their passports and were asking each other how to spell their names in pinyin.  I finally offered to help and filled out the forms for them.  They were so grateful that they kept trying to give me all of their food for the rest of the flight.  They tried to give me some stuff from their luggage too.  It made me wonder if they hadn’t expected Americans to be helpful or something.  I felt like I owed it to them since I very clearly remember the first time I came to China and with the language barrier, everything was hard.  I needed to exchange money one time and had no idea how to communicate that.  The only reason I got it done was because one of the bank employees called their friend who could speak English and she left her job to come to the bank to help me.  The least I could do was help fill out some simple forms for this elderly couple that was in the same position I’d been in 10 years prior.

Another time I was seated with a Chinese woman who was probably about 40 years old.  No matter how far in advance I request a vegetarian meal or how many times I confirm it online, the airlines (except United) always “lose” my request.  When they started the meal service on this flight the stewardess tried to plop some beef mush down in front of me and I asked for my vegetarian meal instead.  The stewardesses on this flight were all American, as in, white people.  I obviously wasn’t having any trouble communicating with them, but my seat mate took up my vegetarian cause for me.  When the stewardess took too long coming back with the right meal, the Chinese lady began harassing all of the stewardesses on my behalf, demanding that they bring me my vegetarian meal.  She did this in English.  At the next meal service, before it even began, she was already up looking for a stewardess to remind them that I needed a vegetarian meal and that they better not try to give me any meat.  It was so weird, but effective.  Even though the airline hadn’t bothered preparing any vegetarian meals, after the first time no one tried to give me a meat dish again.  I imagine that it wasn’t worth the grief they would have gotten from my seat mate.  I wish she was on all of my flights with me.  I still don’t know what her end game was.

I think I need to invest in some noise canceling headphones or hurry up and get a real job again so I can fly business class.

Shanghai Calling 纽约客@上海 – The Movie!

This is not my photo.  I found it on the internet.  Daniel Henney is pretty hot.

This is not my photo. I found it on the internet. Daniel Henney is pretty hot.

Basic synopsis:

A slick and immoral American lawyer, Sam Chao (Daniel Henney) is sent to Shanghai to head up the company’s Shanghai law office.  Upon his arrival in Shanghai, he is greeted by Amanda (Eliza Coupe), a relocation specialist who’s job it is to help him settle in.  Since this movie takes place in China, a very relevant part of the story line is the fact that Sam Chao is an ABC who can’t speak Chinese, whereas Amanda is a blonde haired, blue eyed American who can, thereby making this not only a romantic comedy, but a romantic comedy that makes fun of all the cliches that go along with Sam and Amanda’s linguistic situation.  Chinese people all insist on speaking to Sam in Chinese, waitresses give Amanda the Chinglish menu, etc etc – it’s all funny because it’s true.  Aside from the love story, there’s a lot more going on in the movie.  Via Fang Fang, Sam’s assistant, the movie takes a look at the social and economic pressure put on young Chinese people.  The complexity of the Chinese legal system and prevalent use of guanxi is also touched on in how Sam tries to deal with a legal suit before knowing anything about China’s 国情 and after refusing to take Fang Fang’s advice on the matter.  Without giving too much away, the lawsuit that Sam is dealing with would have been an easy one in which to make the Chinese out to be the bad guys, but that isn’t the case here.  I also really enjoyed how the movie made fun of some of the “foreigner in China” cliches – the skeezy English teacher, the arrogant business man who thinks Chinese people don’t know anything, the foreigner who thinks he’s Chinese, and the I’m never going back, these are my people guy.

Shanghai Calling got some pretty harsh reviews online.  I however, really like this movie.  I suspect that the people who didn’t like it were people who aren’t in on the joke of what it’s like to be a foreigner in China.  I made my husband watch the movie with me and he’s never been to China.  We had to pause it a few times so I could explain something that seemed obvious to me, but made no sense to him.  Shanghai Calling’s only failing perhaps is that a wider audience wasn’t taken into consideration, but I think it wouldn’t have been as good if they had done that.

Shanghai Calling trailer 

One last thing that I thought was interesting from a linguistic standpoint was the technique that Eliza Coupe’s accent coach, Cheng Yang Yang used to “teach” her Chinese.  Eliza Coupe’s character didn’t speak a lot of Chinese in the movie, but enough to judge how well said technique worked.  Cheng Yang Yang obviously didn’t need Eliza to actually know Chinese, she just needed to be able to get through her lines, basically using memorization. The first thing Cheng Yang Yang did was to transcribe her lines from Chinese into a kind of Englishized pinyin.  For example, “ni xiang chi shenme” became “knee shee-ahng chir shun muh.” She then helped Eliza refine the pronunciation a little and then for the tones, she used a melody and had Eliza put the melody onto the words she was saying.  According to Cheng Yang Yang, at this point Eliza “immediately sounded like a native Chinese speaker!” Ok, well…Eliza didn’t sound like a native speaker, not even a little bit.  She definitely sounded like an American, with a heavy accent and some awkward pauses. I wouldn’t say the technique worked that well and it sounds like a lot of work, I doubt that any time was saved by teaching Eliza her lines this way.  Since Eliza’s character in the movie didn’t begin learning Chinese until college, it’s normal that she would have an accent.  I probably wouldn’t even really have an opinion on Eliza’s Chinese, except that Cheng Yang Yang made such a big deal advertising this technique.  Given all the fanfare, I would have expected better results. It was still a great movie.

Cheng Yang Yang’s technique

Short Haired Dictionaries

The town of Yuxi.  It didn't look this good when I lived there.

The town of Yuxi. It didn’t look this good when I lived there.

When I went to China for the first time in 2003, I was 19.  I was pretty stupid as most 19 year old girls are and I dated some really inappropriate guys, but for the two years I was in China, I had the somewhat unique experience of dating inappropriate Chinese guys.  These guys weren’t inappropriate because they were Chinese, they were inappropriate for the usual reasons – age, socio-economic status, mis-matched personalities, and a few were just plain bad people.  I believe that with hard work, cultural differences can be overcome and adjusted for, but part of my problem as a new expat to China was a willingness to write off just about anything as “cultural differences.”  Some things are just not going to work between two people no matter where you are.

Winter Poplar-

Winter Poplar and I met at an English corner.  He is a member of the Hani minority group.  We hit it off immediately, even though his English wasn’t great and my Chinese was atrocious.  He was the first Chinese friend I made.  We became attached at the hip.  When he got off work, he would come straight to my house and we would eat dinner together, or go to his mom and dad’s house, or he would help me with my homework, it didn’t matter, we had a great time doing anything.  We went on vacation together a couple of times and unlike any of the Chinese guys that came later, he never tried to make a move on me.  I assumed it was because of the Chinese tendency towards 保守 and didn’t really question it.  My friends began speculating whether or not he was gay.  Welp, long story short, he was gay.  When he finally told me, it was such a shock…I felt like I’d been strung along and was really, really hurt.  I needed some time off.  We didn’t talk for a few months and during that time I had a chance to process it and realized that I was probably the first person he’d told because he’d just realized it himself.  You can’t really be mad about that.  I think he had given it an honest effort, but gay is gay.  10 years later, we are still good friends.  We constantly email, text and call each other.  He’s come to visit me a few times from where he lives now near Wuhan and earlier this summer when I was getting ready to fly home from Shanghai, his crazy ass made a trip to Shanghai just to 送 me to the airport.  I love that guy like the brother I never had.

The Slickster-

The Slickster was a member of the Hui minority group…about 12 years older than me and a friend of a “friend.”  My other expat friends and I called him the Slickster because he was always dressed in all black and had his hair slicked back with a lot of gel.  He wasn’t a bad looking dude.  Our mutual acquaintance, Nick had gone to middle school with this guy and The Slickster had told Nick (who owned the only western cafe in town) that he was interested in meeting some western girls.  So Nick called me up and arranged a meeting.  I didn’t question The Slickster’s motives in wanting to meet western girls (I hadn’t yet realized that there were motives), but probably because my own weren’t so great.  I wanted to date a Chinese guy so he could teach me Chinese!  I wanted my own short haired dictionary.  The Slickster and I went out a few times.  He talked a lot about how he wanted to start a business in Yunnan (where we were living) and then move to America.  I didn’t yet realize how I might be a cog in his plan.  Not long after, The Slickster asked me for something like USD $30k as an investment.  Being a 19 year old student, I didn’t have it.  He didn’t believe me and we had an argument.  He left angrily and then showed up drunk at my apartment around 1am that night for a booty call.  I didn’t put out and that was the last I heard of The Slickster.

The Bouncer-

The Bouncer worked at a club that we frequented.  He was HUGE!  Probably 6 ft tall and really bulky.  This was important to me because at 5’7″ and kinda chubby at the time, it was hard for me to find Chinese guys who were bigger than me.  He was 35 and had been in the Army (later I would realize that was a red flag).  We went on a few dates and he would sometimes ask me to come sit with him in his rented room while he finished smoking his water pipe.  I noticed that there was women’s clothing and shoes in his closet.  I asked about this and he told me it belonged to his sister (why would he lie about that, right?).  I paid for everything when we went out.  I assumed this was a cultural thing (it isn’t).  The Bouncer had also at one point asked me for a huge chunk of money to invest in a coal mine in Baoshan.  Again, we had a fight when I told him I didn’t have it.  It wasn’t long before he made up an excuse to stay at my house overnight and tried to sleep with me.  I rejected him partly because of his shady behavior, partly because he smelled funny.   A few weeks later I received a late night phone call from a crying woman wanting to know why my number was in her husband’s phone (along with some sleazy texts he’d sent me).  The Chinese often use “wife” or “husband” to refer to their boyfriends or girlfriends, but given that this dude was 35, he was probably married and was trying to cheat on his lao po with me.  I should have known something was up when I realized he had two cell phones – that is usually a pretty good sign.

Cloud Boy-

I met Cloud Boy at a club, which as everyone knows is a great place to meet serious, long-term partners.  Cloud boy was closer to my age, about 23, but he was what we now call 农民工, or a migrant worker (that wasn’t a widely used term 10 yrs ago).  He was from a very poor village in southern Yunnan and had come to Yuxi (not a huge city) to find work and opportunities.  He had found a job in a department store selling electronics for about 300 RMB a month, which at the time worked out to about $38/month.  If that’s better than what he would have been earning in his home town, then you can probably imagine the abject poverty he grew up in.   Cloud Boy was super cute and had a great sense of humor.  Unlike a lot of Chinese people, he caught on to the American sense of humor and was able to see the hilarity of normal Chinese situations and how they seemed to us.  I really enjoyed spending time with Cloud Boy.  I think Cloud Boy enjoyed dating me too, but not necessarily for the same reasons.  I think he liked going out with me and my expat friends because we’d foot the bill, I think he liked taking me out with his friends because of the serious 面子 (face) he’d get for dating a foreigner, and I think he had really built up in his mind what sex with a foreigner would be like.  Maybe he watched a lot of porn, I don’t know.  In any event, it wasn’t great. And I know what some people are thinking and no, the size was not the issue.  It was plain and simple a lack of any real connection and also some body consciousness on my part.  I wasn’t at my slimmest during this time and Cloud Boy was super skinny…he was 5’11” and weighed probably 120 lbs.  We broke up soon after and he went back to his hometown.  It was fun while it lasted, but Cloud Boy made me see more clearly what a Chinese person possibly had to gain by dating a foreigner.

There were a handful of other extremely short lived relationships in the mix.  They typically ended when I either refused to provide a monstrous sum of money for some business investment or didn’t want to sleep with the guy.  It would seem that all Chinese men think that American/western women are all whores (thanks, Hollywood) and have mountains of US dollars laying around that we don’t know what to do with.  However, I wasn’t exactly dating quality people.  There’s something to be said for the Chinese saying  门当户对, “to be well matched in social and economic status.”  I’m not saying that all poor, uneducated people in China are gold diggers just looking for a ticket to America, but I probably would have been more successful if I’d been dating guys who had social backgrounds similar to mine.  I did date one guy very briefly and he had graduated from college (I hadn’t yet, but would) and had a good job.  He had traveled abroad and spoke English well.  He didn’t expect me to behave like a Chinese girl (aka he liked my independence) and never railed on me for my weight.  He had just purchased a house and was looking to get married sooner rather than later.  When I met him, I was 21 and he ended things because I was too young and not ready to settle down, which in all fairness, is a pretty good reason.  Certainly better than being dumped because I wouldn’t give him money or didn’t turn out to be the porn star he was hoping for.  I learned a lot from all of this and was definitely exposed to a side of China that not many foreigners experience.  My Chinese got a lot better too.  The bottom line is that people who are dating across cultures shouldn’t let bad behavior continue under the guise of “cultural differences.”  Cultural differences are things like celebrating different holidays, eating different food, or different religious beliefs.  Cultural differences are not generally things that when in your own country, you would classify as “being a bad person.”   Maybe everyone else already knows this, but at 19 I sure didn’t.