Door to door service

10 May

In the last week I’ve had reason to notice two specific instances of door-to-door service, both of which have caused me a lot of thinking.

The first example was of delivery service.  My husband has registered with a company called Shun Feng which is the Chinese equivalent of UPS or FedEx (and is actually more dependable than both of them in China).  Because his phone number is registered, he only has to call when he has a package and someone automatically comes to our door.

The delivery man will bring the box or envelope you need and any packing material to your door – with a promise of a visit within 2 hours.  This particular time, the delivery man arrived within 20 minutes, padded envelope in hand.  I was truly stunned.

This type of service is only practical in a large city with the density of Shanghai.  I can’t imagine this in a rural area or smaller city, but the convenience just takes my breath away.

The second example was also of door-to-door service, but not quite as favorable.  I was getting ready for bed one night and there was a loud knock on the door.  My husband went to answer it.  At the door were three policemen (two men and a woman) and one of the security guards from our building.  They insisted on seeing my husband’s ID card.  They talked to him for a while and then started asking more questions – who else lives here?

He replied back that his wife lived there as well.  I stayed in the bedroom.  They then started asking for my paperwork.  He showed them my passport, they asked another couple of questions and then left.  It was obvious they were checking in on me – the foreigner – not him.

This kind of thing hasn’t happened in a long time, since right before the Beijing Olympics.  All of my paperwork is correct, there was nothing they could have done – but this door-to-door service just made me feel incredibly uncomfortable.  I don’t want or need visits from the police at my door.

China is a place of contradictions.  One moment I can be enjoying the convenience and the next shivering at the efficiency.  I know that I am welcomed here – to a point, but there are limits.

Have you ever had door to door service?  Was it a positive or a negative?  Any thoughts?

Apologies for the scarcity of posts recently.  More travel and I have been feeling a bit under the weather.  May and June will continue to be busy, but let’s see how much I can fit in!




Dinner with Mr. He

20 Apr

Last weekend we went to dinner with a former colleague of Li’s – the driver of his former boss, Mr. He.  I had never met him and was curious because Li had always said he was a very wise man.

It was a fascinating dinner – his father had fought with Chiang Kai Shek in Jiangsu province and then had moved to Shanghai where Mr. He was born in 1953.   He was unlucky enough to be sent to the countryside with millions of other Shanghai youth and spent 8 years of hard labor in Hebei province in the far north of China.

After coming back to Shanghai in the late 1970s he met his wife and they had a son.  He now lives in the Hongkou district in Shanghai where he is a grandfather and still drives part time for my husband’s former company.   What a story!

He was a wise man, not prone to excess – he wouldn’t eat too much dinner and talked about his experience in a matter of fact way.   He was old enough to be my father and without meaning to I started making comparisons between the two and the luck of one to be born in the US and one in China.

From there I shifted to myself and how lucky I am to be able to make choices – to decide where I live and what I do.  Freedom is sweet.

I am glad we met.  Once I got home I had many more questions than answers.  If you were there, what would you have asked?

My Shanghai – our local hair salon

6 Apr

Since I have grown my hair long, I don’t go to the salon nearly as often as I did before.  My husband, however, goes about once a month to make sure that his cut stays in shape.  Because of that – he actually has a longer running relationship with his salon and stylist than I do.  He has followed her from one salon to another and even (in a moment of weakness) over a year ago, bought a membership card which means he gets 50% off all products and services.

Before Chinese New Year I decided I wanted to get my hair  trimmed and he asked if I wanted to go to his salon, which I gladly accepted.  I enjoyed it so much that recently I went back for another trim when Li went in to get his hair cut.

This salon is more traditional than some which means that they wash your hair while you are sitting in the chair – a dry wash – instead of over the sink.  Because it is done that way they can also simultaneously massage your shoulders and neck – which feels wonderful.  After a rinse they then finish the massage down your arms and hands so by the time the stylist arrives you are in a very pleasing mental state.

Enjoying a "dry shampoo"

Enjoying a “dry shampoo”

The shampoo girls were new arrivals in Shanghai, happy to practice their little bit of English and it made me remember the first time I got my hair cut in Shanghai where I couldn’t understand much more than, “Hello, goodbye, I don’t want that and thank you.”  How much has changed in seven years (I can have a full conversation now and actually am familiar with the different regions where the girls were from) – and how much has stayed the same, the continual change in Shanghai and people coming here to seek their fortune.

The cut itself is a little bit of an afterthought in my case – just a quick trim, but still nice to have someone else cut and style and blow dry.

By the time we walked out over an hour later I felt looser and lighter – all for the cost of 30RMB (less than $5USD).  Maybe I should get my hair trimmed every week?

What is your favorite salon?

Toothbrushes and cultural differences

3 Apr

I’ve used an electric toothbrush for a number of years now – I don’t remember when I switched, but I like the extra clean feeling that I get when I use my Spinbrush.  Unfortunately, dental hygiene is not necessarily top of mind in China (I wrote a post on dental floss and the global supply chain some time ago) and so electric toothbrushes are not yet a standard part of daily life.

To make a long story short – I needed a new head for my electric toothbrush and we couldn’t find one.   While we searched Taobao (the Chinese version of Amazon or eBay) – I switched to a standard, old-fashioned brush.  Since this became a joint effort my husband and I talked a lot about toothbrushes and teeth brushing.  It appears that Chinese children are taught differently than American children about how to brush their teeth.

I remember very clearly that you were supposed to brush in small circles – make sure you get into the back of the mouth and you needed to sing “Happy Birthday” three times to yourself to make sure you brushed long enough.

Li told me that when he was small they were taught to brush up and down – and that was it.  I started asking – but how did you know how long to brush?  Didn’t they teach you that small circles help get the food out better?  Electric toothbrushes get into the gaps better than regular brushes.  They strengthen your gums – didn’t you know?

I didn’t even bother to ask if he was taught to floss – as dental floss has only been available in China for about five to ten years.  It wasn’t even an option when he was small.

But – as far as he remembers – none of what I asked was normal.  He looked at me very strangely during this conversation.

Normal can be very different depending on where you start.  Brushing your teeth is not one of those areas that I expected – but cultural differences are everywhere.

How did you learn to brush your teeth?


A visit to Pyongyang – almost

30 Mar

North Korea is still a big mystery to me.  I have read books about its history and peered across the 38th parallel, but that makes me far from an expert.

A couple of weeks ago we met friends for dinner.  As these friends are Chinese, we take turns choosing the restaurant and paying – this time it was their turn.  The night before we were supposed to meet my friend sent me a note asking if Korean food was ok.  We both like Korean food and so agreed to meet at a subway stop and then walk to the restaurant together.

The napkin - in Korean and Chinese

The napkin – in Korean and Chinese

I didn’t recognize all the characters in the name, so didn’t pay much attention, but when we got there we realized it was a North Korean restaurant.  We were in for an interesting night!

Taking in the atmosphere while our friends ordered

Taking in the atmosphere while our friends ordered

The waitresses were all from North Korea and they were dressed in the traditional long formal Korean dress – a combination of a qipao and a kimono.  At the beginning we took a couple of photos but they quickly asked us to put our cameras away.  It appeared that some things are still not free in North Korea – even when you are in China.

Doing some research – it appears that the North Korean government provides the waitresses and they are from families with “good backgrounds” and all college educated – so a step above a typical waitresses in China.  The owner of the restaurant is a Chinese national, but if any of the waitresses “disappears” – then the North Korean government will immediately pull all the waitresses and bankrupt the owner.  Typically they would take 50% of the profit from the endeavor.  Pretty surreal.

The kimchi was among the best I've had and the rice drink in the glass behind was phenomenal.

The kimchi was among the best I’ve had and the rice drink in the glass behind was phenomenal.

The food was similar to food that I have had at many other Korean restaurants.  The kimchi was excellent and they had a special drink that was made of rice.  It was non-alcoholic and reminded me a little bit of Mexican orchata – but a slightly different  flavor profile.  The beef they cooked for you instead of having a grill on the middle of the table which meant that you weren’t overwhelmed by the smoke which was also a nice touch.

Yes - I did wear flowers in my hair, but I did not join the conga line (though our friend did)

Yes – I did wear flowers in my hair, but I did not join the conga line (though our friend did)

After eating – we waited for the highlight of the evening – the performance by the waitresses.  They had changed out of their traditional clothes and were wearing more modern outfits as they serenaded us for a good 30 minutes.  It was a surreal experience – the entire time they performed they had these plastic smiles pasted on their faces and the song choices were random – to say the least.  There were songs in Korean and Chinese and at one point they started passing out flowers and formed a conga line.  I enjoyed it – but it was just plain strange.

The only shot we got of the entertainment - there was an accordion player, electric guitars and singers

The only shot we got of the entertainment – there was an accordion player, electric guitars and singers

At one point as I was clapping Li looked at me and said, “You really shouldn’t clap to this song.”  He then explained that the song was cheering the entry of Chinese soldiers into the Korean War (which meant against the Americans).  I didn’t know, but I did stop for the duration of that event.

Our discussion during dinner was very wide ranging and included the question – “If Mao’s son hadn’t died – would China look like North Korea now?”  It was an interesting question that my friends and Li debated for a long time.  I just listened.

After having some time to digest the meal (mentally and physically) I am not sure if I had known it was a North Korean restaurant that I would have gone, but having had the chance it did give me a glimpse into another world that I would very rarely see.   What do you think?

Would you have gone?



Bite your tongue!

23 Mar

Last night at dinner I bit my tongue – hard.  It was one of those things where I wasn’t paying attention and instead of eggplant, I caught my own tongue.  Even this morning my tongue feels fat and a little swollen.


As we were walking home after the fact, my husband asked how I was feeling and then said that I  must have not eaten enough at dinner.

I looked at him with skepticism as I had eaten a ton – probably too much – and asked him to explain.

He said in his hometown if you bite your tongue it means that you are still hungry – no matter how much you’ve already eaten – whereas if you bite the inside of your cheek it means you have eaten too much and are full.

I don’t know if this is common throughout China, or specific to where Li grew up but I had not heard of any assumptions that occur with biting your tongue before.

Have you?

What’s in a name?

16 Mar

English is very simple sometimes.  We have one word for cousin, one word for aunt, one word for grandmother.  Your father’s older brother and your mother’s younger brother are given the same label – uncle.

Chinese – not so much.

Older and younger brothers (and sisters) both have specific names {哥哥,弟弟 and 姐姐,妹妹}.  In fact, the word for siblings is a combination of all those terms Xiongdijiemei 兄弟姐妹。Siblings are just the beginning though.

Recently we got into quite a long discussion about the word for mother-in-law.  It is different depending on if she is the husband’s mom or the wife’s mother.  For me, my mother-in-law should be called 婆婆 which is easier to remember because 外婆 (waipo) means your mother’s mother.  Li should be calling my mom 岳母- yuemu – where the second syllable is part of the formal word for mother.

Learning all these iterations is tough on a language student.  Even almost seven years in I sometimes flip the words for uncle or grandfather because my head just doesn’t seem to contain enough space.  English is remarkably concise – but we do have to ask a lot of follow up questions, “Is that your mom’s mom or your dad’s mom?  Which side of your family is Matt on? Is your brother older or younger?”

Then there are the questions about siblings because with the one child policy people use old words with new meanings.  Because people don’t have older or younger brothers, they now use those words to refer to their cousins instead of the traditional words.  This leads to questions like, “Is it your brother with the same mother?” The first time I heard that one, I was pretty confused.

With my sister-in-law having a son, there are also the words for nephew and niece – which once again vary by side.  Too many names!

One potential family tree - though Li doesn't agree with all these labels!

One potential family tree – though Li doesn’t agree with all these labels!

The above is a chart we found, but even this has some variations from what I hear colloquially.

So, who are you?  What names do you have and which would you like to know?

I am a daughter, older sister, wife, daughter-in-law, aunt, cousin. That would be 女儿,姐姐,老婆,儿媳妇 and 表妹,表姐 and a couple of other words.

Relearning Shanghai

9 Mar

I’m back.

Three weeks after my last post, I’m taking the plunge again to attempt to capture the joy and confusion and life that is living in China.  Thanks for staying tuned.

Looking at my stats during the time I was away – I have a remarkably loyal core readership – or by this point I’ve posted so much content that the search engines will guarantee a certain readership level even without posting anything new.  I’m not sure how to take it.

I’ve been traveling a lot lately – the entire month of February I was in my own bed for less than a week.  The posts at the beginning of the month were strategically scheduled to make you unaware of my whereabouts.  When I got back to China, my VPN was down, making scaling the Great Firewall impossible  – and I had all of those other “life” things I needed to take care of – food, clean clothes, making the apartment feel like mine again.

And Shanghai continues to change.  In my absence there felt like so many new elements layered on top of life – when in the day-to-day I may not notice, but coming back (especially after the US) they are front and center.

My walk to yoga is now past buildings that have been flattened (but were whole before Chinese New Year).  There is a new foreign supermarket in Times Square (two years after the old one closed) – that has a baking section with muffin cups and unbleached flour.  After reading a website, my husband has clued me in that within a ten minute walk are three of Shanghai’s most famous street food stands – not counting the one we discovered last year – Da Chang Mian.

The way to order a taxi has changed with a competition between two of the most powerful Chinese internet tycoons who are giving rides away for free, making hailing a cab much more challenging.  And my work schedule has shifted very nocturnally with lots and lots of conference calls after 9pm.  Re-entering Shanghai life has taken me a little time.

This past Friday, I met a vendor for lunch at a restaurant I have visited many times before – Din Tai Fung.  I’ve been to their flagship store in Taipei 101 and eaten at multiple locations across Shanghai.  This time, when I sat down, the waitress gave me this card.

This side has directions in Chinese, English and Korean - the reverse French and Japanese.  Eating soup dumplings can be tricky!

This side has directions in Chinese, English and Korean – the reverse French and Japanese. Eating soup dumplings can be tricky!

It details how to eat Xiao Long Bao (steamed soup dumplings) which is the dish the restaurant is the most famous for.  The two sides of the cards have multiple languages making sure whomever visits is clear.  It would have been very handy 7 years ago, but the effect now was it made me feel like maybe, just maybe, I had been in Shanghai a little too long.

My contact arrived and we ordered lunch and enjoyed the views of the Bund and I normalized, heading off to my next meeting and my massage that evening and a great dinner that my husband had prepared.  But I couldn’t get it out of my head – every single time I leave and come back I have to relearn this city.  Yes, my understanding grows deeper, but with that, I notice more changes.  I am no longer superficially connected to this place – it is in my psyche, my pace of living, my taste buds and internal soundtrack.


Come visit.  I promise – it won’t be boring!

Do you speak English? (A Santorini photo shoot)

16 Feb

This post is part of our adventures in Greece in the fall of 2013.  To see other posts in the series, please click here.

I'm ready for my close up

I’m ready for my close up

We had spent a pleasant morning in Santorini walking along the old path.  I was dressed in a long white flowing gown that Li had purchased for me that complemented the scenery.  Li wore a blue shirt with a white collar.  We meandered along, looking for the best angles and light.

Along the old path

Along the old path

I felt like a movie star.

We were looking for a certain place that would memorialize our belated honeymoon – a certain view that already had been publicized hundreds of times before.

Looking for the light

Looking for the light

Finally, after asking for directions at multiple places, we found it – the blue roof church with the white bell tower that had appeared on the cover of National Geographic magazine many years ago.  The best views are actually taken from a parking lot above the church so you can look down with the Aegean sea behind you and puffy white clouds.

Together under the blue, blue sky - and dressed for the occasion

Together under the blue, blue sky – and dressed for the occasion

In the parking lot were over a dozen Chinese tourists snapping away – posing together and individually – some in casual clothes, others dressed up for the occasion in similar outfits as Li and myself.  We asked a couple of different people to take photos of us  together and hoped that we would have the “money shot” in the bunch that would represent out trip to Greece, our marriage and give us happy memories for the future.

It was a great experience and after we shot those photos we headed back down to the Old Path and started making our way to find a place to have lunch.  Before we got very far, we were stopped by some people eating at one of the many restaurants along the path.  Their table was closest to the path and they looked at me and very timidly asked “Do you speak English?”

Li and I looked at each other and nodded ascent.  They then asked, “Why are there so many Asian women in long white dresses like yours around here taking pictures?  You look beautiful – but we can’t quite understand why there are so many right here.  We’ve been eating lunch and must have seen two dozen women dressed that way over the last hour or so.”

We smiled and explained how the church above the restaurant had turned into something of a Mecca for Chinese tourists because of its fame in the National Geographic photo shoot.  The group who stopped us said they were Canadian but had never heard of that specific photo.  We then shared how the Aegean Sea could be phonetically translated as the Sea of Love in Chinese and how young Chinese couples wanted to get a shot by the church as a memory.  We suggested they climb up the path to take a look.

We talked a little more, sharing where we were from and why we were there and at the end parted company with a smile and good wishes and went on to look for the perfect spot for lunch.

Have you had a random question like this when you have been traveling?  The funny thing is – most of the Asian couples they had seen could probably have spoken English because if you are traveling in Europe without a tour, you need someone who can talk with the hotels.  It was only because I had a non-Asian face that I was asked this question.

The church and the two of us - a perfect pairing - the money shot

The church and the two of us – a perfect pairing – the money shot

Singapore’s Arab Street

11 Feb
Directly under the turret of the main mosque

Directly under the turret of the main mosque

My new job won’t have me going to Singapore quite as much as the old one, but I still needed to take a trip there in January to meet the team and some of my key accounts.  It was a whirlwind of a trip (only 3 nights) – I had a long list of people I wanted to see and was also determined to fit in a couple of personal connections if at all possible.

One evening I managed a dinner with a friend and former colleague, going out to Sentosa and sharing a Greek dinner that reminded me of our time in Santorini, but it was the last day at lunch right before my trip to the airport that I managed to see my oldest friend in Singapore.

Ironically, my oldest friend in Singapore has only lived there a year – she used to live in Shanghai and has recently relocated there with her family, but no matter – I wanted to catch up.

Looking at the map, I realized that our office was within walking distance of Singapore’s Arab Street – an area that I had not yet explored during my many visits as it is not strictly located in the downtown area.  We confirmed a time and place to meet and I walked over to meet her.

The arches and domes make me think of Turkey or Mecca

The arches and domes make me think of Turkey or Mecca

Our meeting place was the mosque at the center of the district and so I followed the turret through the streets selling rugs and fabric and other knick knacks.  I was attracted by a display of brass lamps, but pressed on – knowing there was no space in my luggage.

A row of murals lining the streets

A row of murals lining the streets

Closer to the mosque there was a series of murals, delicate images of exploration, roses, and of course, oil – ubiquitous with that part of the world.

Delicate details in the fresco paintings

Delicate details in the fresco paintings

We met and walked a bit to find a place for an Arabic lunch and talked and talked and talked until I had to leave for a conference call and then my flight.

Before I left I snapped this photo of the history of the street.  I would go back – it’s a different take on Singapore and one I enjoyed.  It is interesting to think how the street, named after somewhere in Iraq, was the gathering place for many years for pilgrims from this part of the world to go on their journey to Mecca.

A little history of the area

A little history of the area

The combination of cultures and food in Singapore makes me happy each time I go.  Its balance of Eastern and Middle Eastern and Western make it easy to feel like each day is an adventure.  What part of Singapore attracts you?

Travels with Tricia A. Mitchell

Sharing Tales of People, Places & Passion. A travel blog to inspire & inform with slow-travel narratives about citizen diplomacy, culture, wine & food, and social good.

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