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Seven years!

1 Nov

Seven years ago today I arrived in China for the first time.  The date is forever fixed in my memory as I took off on Halloween and the flight attendants were all wearing Halloween costumes on the plane.  I landed the next day at Terminal 1 at Pudong Airport (terminal 2 did not exist yet) and looked for nearly twenty minutes before I found the representative of the English language training school who had been sent to pick me up.  We got on a bus and headed into the wilds of Shanghai.

I was scared and excited, spoke no Chinese, but figured I could do anything for a month if needed because I had booked a round trip ticket (just in case things didn’t work out.)

Wow.

Seven years.

Shanghai has changed a lot in the last seven years.  Four subway lines have sprouted into 16; two airports with one terminal each have become four total terminals; the high speed train now connects many more places – only five hours to Beijing!  Visas are easier (and harder) to get and the amount of English language signage has increased exponentially.

Prices have gone up – this has not been a stagnant economy.  Lunch prices have close to doubled, rent has increased, plane tickets, clothing, necessities of daily living are all significantly more expensive.  However, more things are available now as well – and if I want to pay I can have an organic smoothie or imported milk or laundry detergent from another country.

I have changed as well.

From my first month on the ground, I put in the time with my Mandarin teachers and textbooks and didn’t really stop until nearly four years later.  I slowly got comfortable speaking in different situations – ordering food, bargaining, daily life, work, on the phone, in presentations until I can now state my case and even argue.  Humor still escapes me most of the time, but that has always been the hardest for me because of the cultural overtones and word play.

As I found my “Chinese voice” I became more aggressive, more likely to speak up for myself – physically louder and more confident.  I managed a cross-cultural team and discovered that to survive in business I could not be a perfectionist or I would go crazy. I visited most all of the skyscrapers (new and old) on the Lujiazui side of the river and consulted with their HR on what the future of their benefit plans could mean.

I am proud to say that I am still friends with at least four individuals I met within the first week or two upon arrival and have watched them get married and/or have kids and/or switch careers.  I have done the same, switching jobs, meeting my husband and continuing to morph in this magical city.

So, upon this seven year “China-versary” I wanted to thank you all for following my ride, for looking into my jumbled view of the world and hope you stay around for whatever comes next.

I promise you won’t be bored.

 

Looking down

17 Sep

On a recent weekend I was walking home past the maternity hospital that is close to our apartment complex.  I looked down and at my feet was row after row of characters written across the sidewalk.  They kept going – I could pick out bits and pieces, but wasn’t really able to follow what the context was.  The chalk was different colors and made a striking appearance against the gray sidewalk.

I hypothesized that it could have been a student practicing penmanship as sometimes in the parks I’ll see people doing calligraphy on the ground using a big brush and water.  As I slowed down to look a couple of other people were reading out the lines, but again I couldn’t quite catch what they meant.

So, I took a couple of pictures.

Multicolored characters

Multicolored characters

Poetry or prose?

Poetry or prose?

Later that night, I asked Li what had been written on the sidewalk.  He read it, then looked at me strangely.  His  question was unexpected, “Was anyone else around when you read this?”

I explained just some other folks walking along and reading aloud.

The text of the majority of the sidewalk poetry was about a beggar on the streets of Shanghai and his tale of woe.  He must have written it on the sidewalk and been begging by the side of the hospital.  By the time I passed by he had either moved on or been asked to move on, leaving only his written chalk poem as testament that he had been there.

Noticing details is part of experiencing a culture.  I’m glad I noticed this one, but not so happy as to what the result was.

Have you ever looked down and seen something you didn’t expect?

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.

Ouch.

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.

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

Happy Year of the Horse!

30 Jan

IMG_20140128_203941

January 31, 2014 starts the year of the horse in the lunar calendar.  The year of the snake has slithered out the door and the horse strides in proudly.

The horse year is a good and lucky one – supposedly good for marriages, births and money.  One of the phrases that I especially like is a play on words.  Each year there seems to be at least one phrase that is specific to the animal’s name.  This one plays on the word for horse 马 (Ma).  The phrase that everyone is throwing around is: 马上有钱 (Ma Shang you qian).  There are two meanings – you see that the first character is the same as horse (Ma – 马).

Literally – the phrase means that “Money is coming immediately.”  However, it can also mean – “Money is coming – on the horse.” Since it is the year of the horse, people take it to believe that the year of the horse brings money – soon!

Decorations from our office cross-office new year's celebration for the year of the horse

Decorations from our office cross-office new year’s celebration for the year of the horse

I have a feeling that the horse year is going to bring lots of good things!

For those of you who were born in the year of the horse (remember the cycles are every 12 years – so 1978, 1990, 2002, 2014) they say that you are modern, popular and nimble.  Not sure if that means there are lots of yoga lovers born in those years or not!  Personally – I think many of the horses on the decorations look like My Little Ponies – however there are “warrior horses” as well – so take your pick.

We have already decorated the door and will be celebrating with a large new year’s eve dinner and then watching the annual country-wide Annual New Year spectacular to get a real good sense of Chinese culture.  The fireworks should be great.

Prosperity for you!

Prosperity for you!

Happy Chinese New Year to all!  I wish you and your families a healthy, safe and prosperous year of the horse!

Guest post – I’m ready to move to China* – part 2

14 Jan

*except for that whole “speaking Mandarin” thing

I am pleased to announce that I’m starting the year off with something new on the blog.  My good friend and cousin, Matt came to visit me mid-October and before he left I gave him the idea of doing a guest post.  This is the second segment of the three.  To read segment one with his observations, click here.

Apparently the Chinese Internet Censors are asleep at the switch, because I’m back in the blogosphere! You didn’t think I’d spend over a week in China and only have seven recordable observations, did you? Much thanks to my hostess for allowing me continue my rambling, incoherent jumble of thoughts that I insist is a narrative!

Without further ado, here are some more of my Chinese observations:

  • G and I got foot massages together. I don’t get massages often (or, um, really ever) but I gather that the concept of Chinese massage is sort of a test of endurance. I spent my time straddling the line between relaxation and bearable pain. She taught me “ching e dian” (轻一点lighter) and “jong e dian” (重一点harder). I said “harder” once, held on as long as I could, and then asked for “softer.” Upon leaving, I felt like I had survived, rather than relaxed.  That said, I would definitely go back again (and did, near the end of my visit).
  • Massage sidebar: both of our masseuses agreed that my size 15 feet were the largest they’d ever seen.  My feet barely fit in the pre-massage hot water bucket.  I do like to leave an impression on people!
  • The Shanghai subway system is very easy to learn. Having English signs is a boon, of course, but what really helps are the large arrows on the floor showing where to go to reach your desired train line. I also marvel at the temporary blockades they put up to better control the flow of foot traffic during rush hour. One complaint: you need to know which exit gate to go through, because there’s no second chance. More than once I left through the wrong set of gates, and ended up being forced to go back to street-level from an exit across the street from where I wanted to be.
  • Whether you’re in the shops around Yu Yuan Gardens, or Tiantong Rd., or just off Xizang Rd near Zizhong Rd, or the famed Night Market in Hangzhou, one observation holds true: you’re gonna see a lot of stalls selling the same stuff.  There’ll be differences in types of merchandise from location to location, but within any particular center you’ll find three or four shops selling the same items.  I guess if you’ve got time and can haggle respectably, that means there are deals to be had. If you’re me, it means making a purchase at one shop, then finding a vendor four stalls down offering you the same item for 20 RMB less as a starting offer.  Hmph.
Many stalls around Yu Yuan

Many stalls around Yu Yuan

  • During our first afternoon in Hangzhou, Greta and I ambled down to the West Lake waterfront. Coincidentally we arrived near the water’s edge roughly a minute before a water fountain show was to begin! Some people had arrived early to get available seating for the “Music Fountain,” but we were able to walk up to the first row of “standing room.” The actual show was impressive: a line of rotatable water spouts (plus a circle of spouts to each side) that “danced” in tune with the music being played over loudspeakers. There were three or four songs in total, and the whole spectacle lasted about 15 minutes.
The fountain at work

The fountain at work

I repeatedly came back to two thoughts: what kind of effort went into programming all of those nozzles to perform such elaborate routines, and how much mechanical upkeep is necessary to keep the show running in top condition year round? (Remember, I AM an engineer!) That second thought came from watching one poor spigot without enough water pressure flailing helplessly at the lake’s surface between its functioning brothers.

Hazy view of the fountain

Hazy view of the fountain

  • One of my better accomplishments in China was during our second night in Hangzhou. After parting ways, I wandered back down to the Night Market and successfully pantomimed my way into ordering a delicious grilled squid from one of the many sidewalk food vendors.  The key moments were pointing at the squid, holding up one finger, and mumbling “yi ge.” Baby steps, people!
  • The smaller the diameter of tapioca ball in your milk tea, the longer it takes to finish that tea.
Lingyin Temple

Lingyin Temple

  • The Lingyin temple compound is quite impressive, but it probably spoiled me. Later in the week I visited the Longhua Temple, and found it to be interesting, but underwhelming by comparison. If I was better versed in Buddhism, perhaps I would be able to pick up on the nuances of each temple (and each chamber within the temple). Alas, at this time I can only appreciate them from an artistic (and sometimes architectural) perspective.
Rear of Lingyin Temple

Rear of Lingyin Temple

  • When we got back from Hangzhou, we showed Li our videos of the “Music Fountain.” We wanted to know if he recognized the song being used. Li did not recognize it; he surmised it was some generic composition that Americans tourists would think “sounded Chinese.” He’s probably right.
  • English translations on Chinese restaurant menus can be head-scratchingly hilarious. G and I ate at Yun Se Restaurant in Shanghai, where she spent a lot of time comparing the accuracy of the Chinese names to their English equivalents. Mind you, the food she DID order was delicious, but here are some other options (as seen on the menu): Pepper beer, Basin of hypodermal, Burn the pig feet, Hairtail, The non general perch, and of course, Donald Duck. Bon appetit!

We’ve reached the end of another guest segment. Make sure you stay tuned next week for the final segment. Thank you again for allowing me to write! And thanks to you, the viewer, for boosting both the page views and my own ego. Until next time!

Any engineers out there who want to comment on the pressure in the fountain?  What types of details do you pay attention to when traveling?  Share your thoughts!

Guest post – I’m ready to move to China*

7 Jan

*except for that whole “speaking Mandarin” thing

I am pleased to announce that I’m starting the year off with something new on the blog.  My good friend and cousin, Matt came to visit me mid-October and before he left I gave him the idea of doing a guest post.  For my Christmas present he prepared three posts to provide his point of view on the trip.  Sit back, read and enjoy!

Greetings all!

This is Matt, cousin and friend (that’s right, I wear TWO hats!) and recent guest of your favorite Shanghai blogger. And now I’m guest-blogging my perspectives after spending a little over a week in China in October.  My Chinese knowledge upon touching down at Pudong consisted of 1/8 of the Rosetta Stone Mandarin Level 1 CD combined with everything I picked up from the “Learn a Language” games offered by Berlitz in the personal headrest screen on the flight over.  I confidently strode off the plane knowing numbers 1-10 as well as hello, goodbye, thank you, help, sorry, “I don’t know”, and uh, inexplicably “I love you.” (Apparently Berlitz feels this is a common enough travel phrase internationally to include it with the others I listed.)

Over the past several years, G has blogged about a LOT of aspects of China.  It may be difficult for me to mine new territory, so I’ll take the dual approach of both the “first-timer” perspective, with a little “engineer” perspective to boot.

With that said, here are my observations of Shanghai and China:

  • The Chinese do not care for hand-washing.  Or more specifically, using soap. In the various public/restaurant bathrooms I visited during my stay, I saw plenty of sinks but rarely a soap dispenser. Further dissuading hand-washing was the omnipresence of ineffective (uh, American-made) hand dryers.  So watch out for that next handshake!
  • Along the same line of thought: When I packed a couple of pocket tissue packages for potential allergy issues, I didn’t realize I’d be on the cutting edge of culture! Pocket tissue packs are the must-have accessory for the frequent restaurant patron, as apparently many Chinese establishments don’t supply napkins, or charge extra for the convenience. Charging for water or extra bread I can see, but napkins?! Betcha didn’t think of packing tissues on purpose!
  • In the parks of central Shanghai, stray kittens appear to be the Chinese equivalent of squirrels in American parks. They’re all over the place, and they’re not shy about looking for a food handout. I tried to tell one kitten I didn’t have any food in both English and Spanish, but she willfully refused to understand. Berlitz really dropped the ball, not teaching me how to tell a cat that I don’t have food in Mandarin! Maybe I should have told her I loved her instead…
The frisky feline

The frisky feline

  • Also in the parks, I noticed public-use exercise equipment, of the low-aerobic variety. Now, I assume the primary users are those most likely to be in the park during the day: the middle-aged to elderly. But I think that’s good, to give this group an opportunity to exercise for which they might not otherwise have the impetus (or financial wherewithal).  This would be a good idea for city parks States-side.
Ready to move?

Ready to move?

  • G took me to the intersection of Yan’an Rd and Chengdu Rd, and told me the story of how the feng shui expert recommended putting dragons on the primary pillar to ensure the structure would hold up. That entire elevated highway intersection is fascinating: the engineer in me wonders about all the designing and construction that took place in order to make that happen.
Here Thar be Dragons

Here Thar be Dragons

  • I also like the plants along the sides of the elevated roads. The greenery really helps to mitigate the coldness and grey that so often accompanies large concrete structures.
  • Here’s to the power of suggestion! We went to Wujiang Road and had some traditional Chinese desserts. I had durian and green tea ice cream in a cold vanilla broth. The durian initially tasted odd yet unassuming, but then she told me Andrew Zimmerman’s (of Bizarre Foods) thoughts on the infamous fruit, and well, I had a hard time eating much more of it.  It might be a while before I try interacting with durian again.
The durian is the lower of the bowls

The durian is the lower of the bowls

That’s all for now. When I sent the first draft of my writing, she observed it was less of a “blog entry” and more like a “short novel.” I can’t disagree. So my observations have been broken into more time-friendly segments. Until next time!

Any comments or thoughts on Matt’s post?  Please let him (and me) know what you found interesting or new!  All comments welcome.

Who’s worried?

15 Dec

Last week I caught up with a former coworker for lunch.  There have been some interesting legislative developments recently about an aspect of her business so we were discussing how/if they were planning on capitalizing on the change.

She said it had been very difficult to get the decision maker (who sits outside of China) to take the changes seriously and it really felt like her team was pushing to try to market the appropriate new solution.  Then she asked if I had heard the expression “皇帝不急,太监急"(Huang di bu ji, tai jian ji.)

I hadn’t heard that phrase before and asked her to explain.  She said that it meant that the key person (the emperor) didn’t think something was important but his underlings were all running around trying to find an answer.  The phrase seemed to fit the situation perfectly as she just described it.

The next day I told my husband I had learned a new phrase.  He listened, corrected my pronunciation slightly and then asked me if the woman who taught me the sentence was married.  Taken aback, I said that yes, she was.  He then gave me the literal translation of the phrase.

Literally the first part is the same – The emperor isn’t worried – but the second part is – but the eunuchs are worried.  You can see how that translation emphasizes a slightly different point of view.  The overall idea is the same, but the specific words have a different focus.

We had a good laugh – and I decided not to use that phrase for a while.  I don’t feel my Chinese is quite good enough to work that one subtly into conversation.  Give me another couple of years – I am not worried.

In another language note – last week I went to an event where the current US ambassador to China (Gary Locke) spoke.  He will soon be stepping down from his post and was explaining why.  His translator had a style very similar to his so I started to see if I could see the translator in the crowd.  To my surprise – he was a white, foreign face! The man was amazing.  In comparison, my Chinese is terrible.

Translation is not an easy job and there is so much more than just translating words – there is the feel, the meaning, the historical context, the rhythm and the underlying shared background.  This language continues to draw me in.

Have you had a moment when you proudly used a phrase that didn’t turn out quite right?  Or have you viewed a masterful translator in practice?  What aspects do you remember?

A mandarin milestone – traveling and translating

20 Oct

I have been lucky to have had a visitor in town for the last week or so.  Each visitor is a gift – I know that crossing the pond is a big thing and I do everything I can to try to make the trip memorable.

This time, as I have been blessed with some free time I took my guest out of Shanghai to Hangzhou during the middle of the week.  I haven’t had that opportunity for a couple of years as most guests have been in the city while I’ve been working so I can only grab a day or two to  spend with them.

Going to Hangzhou was a revelation – not only because it is a beautiful place but because how I communicated during the trip.

Because my friend doesn’t speak any Chinese – I was on my own in terms of setting the plan, asking questions, ordering food, etc.  I wasn’t with a group of colleagues who let me follow along and I wasn’t with my husband who typically plans our travels within China.  If I didn’t get it right – we weren’t doing it.

I rocked it.

We ate at restaurants where the only menus were listed on the wall.  We successfully navigated the Hangzhou bus system – three times – with me looking at the bus diagrams in characters, choosing the right bus and getting us off at the right stop.  I bargained for gifts and I even chewed out a taxi driver who just didn’t want to take foreigners because they were “too much trouble.”

What I found really interesting was that even outside of my “comfort zone” in Shanghai, I was still able to function – people understood me and helped me and I finally asked questions to make sure things were right.  Sometimes having a guest makes you fearless.  For yourself you can accept certain elements of discomfort – but for your guest – no way!

Over the years I have noticed that this time of year – autumn – tends to be the time when I notice a significant change in my Chinese ability.  I remember my first phone call, my first meeting where I “got it” – my first presentation to a big group in mandarin.  All of those were milestones at the time.  This one was unexpected and very validating.

Have you had a language milestone recently?  Have you ever had others dependent on your translation ability?  It can be stressful – or it can be a gift.  This time, it was a gift.

To read about past mandarin milestones I have had, try the posts below:

Mandarin Milestones

Another Mandarin Milestone

Another Mandarin Milestone (2)

The Mad Woman in the Attic

stories of a serial expat and solo traveller

Marta lives in China

8+ years and counting!

Foreign Sanctuary

Lead and Live a Life Less Ordinary

Crazy Chinese Family

My crazy Chinese Family I married into...

Writing Between the Lines

Life From a Writer's POV

A Kick In The Butt

Advice on all things FITNESS by Personal Trainer Ariana Dane

China Elevator Stories

Conversations with locals in China

Chasing Sunsets

Current Location: The Daraja Academy; Nanyuki, Kenya