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Happy Halloween!

5 Nov
Ready for Halloween?

Ready for Halloween?

Halloween is an American holiday.  When I first came to China it was hardly celebrated at all – in fact, the term in Chinese was still even fairly new (万圣节).  Over the last seven years, it has slowly gained in popularity from just an additional night with some special drinks at bars, to being more entwined in the culture.


Now there are Halloween parties at schools, costumes available online and in some of the stores and even an office party.  I did have a discussion with a colleague this year as to how it all began, why it was important – and he admitted he still doesn’t see why it is getting popular, but others have embraced it.  The idea of being able to be someone else – whether an ancient Chinese poet, a zombie or a vampire has an attraction that transcends cultures.


As I mentioned, this year my company went all out and had a party on Halloween evening with different departments acting as teams and competing for the best skit.  I was assigned to the rag tag team of departments that were too small for their own group – and we really went all out.  I was the pumpkin queen for Super Mario who was spirited away by an evil thief and then had to be rescued from a series of monsters including a masked belly dancer, a tree, a flute playing assassin and an Egyptian pharaoh.  Our chief legal counsel was Mario – and he impressed everyone with his jumps and acting so much that our team wound up in second place!  It was a blast.

Mario rescued his queen!

Mario rescued his queen!

I find it ironic that after making Halloween merchandise for so many years for the rest of the world, the treats and favors are now being used by Chinese people themselves.


What was your favorite costume of all time?  I still remember a Care Bear costume that I wore in first or second grade.  That was definitely up there – though this year’s pumpkin was pretty good too.

Happy Halloween!

A telephone booth with a twist

4 Oct

Telephone booths in Shanghai are disappearing with the modernization of the city, but there are still quite a few.  Most of the remaining ones have been changed into wireless hot spots and I can’t remember the last time I have actually needed to use one since my mobile phone is always in my pocket or purse.

I was heading back home from somewhere and the taxi was waiting at a red light.  I looked to the left and saw this advertisement stuck on the side of the phone booth.

The color of the ad matches the phone booth!  Have you seen an ad for ketchup recently?

The color of the ad matches the phone booth! Have you seen an ad for ketchup recently?

Look familiar?

Ketchup is a staple food in China, though it is more likely to be used with fried eggs and tomatoes than French fries.  I can’t remember the last time I had seen a print ad for ketchup and it struck me as very funny – a US brand advertising a product on a telephone booth in Shanghai.

Behind the phone booth you can see the bamboo scaffolding which is used on the traditional row houses each year as the roofs are checked.  Another part of life in Shanghai.

What ads have you seen lately that have caused you to smile?

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?

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?


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?

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

Random subway sighting

4 Feb

With my new job I take the subway more frequently.  The week before Chinese New Year the subways start to clear out as people head back to their hometown for the big celebrations.  Half of the population of China is on the move.  It’s an intense time.

I have seen all types of luggage – fancy suitcases, plastic bags and everything in between.  But  I hadn’t seen it all until I saw this.

The big question - what are they planning on transporting?

The big question – what are they planning on transporting?

I have no idea how they managed to get the shopping cart down all the steps, but I anticipate they had something large that they were looking to transport.  Necessity is the mother of invention.

If you had your own shopping cart, what would you transport?  Would you take it on the subway?

Happy Year of the Horse!

30 Jan


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!

Merry Christmas!

24 Dec

We are celebrating Christmas this year with family and friends in the US.  The weather still looks a bit iffy, but fingers crossed that we make it there in one piece! I anticipate there will be lots of cookies and carols and hopefully board games.  There may be snow and mistletoe as well. 🙂

This year has been a year of travel – trips to Cambodia, Singapore, Taiwan, Japan, the US, Greece, Dubai and within China.  It has also been a year of change – two different wedding ceremonies, a new job, much longer hair, lots of visitors and old and new friends.  In all – pretty great.

I’ll look back at my 2013 resolutions in another week, but for now – enjoy a couple of my favorite shots from the year.  All credit for these goes to my husband, Li.  One year down – a lifetime to go.

IMGP0476 IMGP5451 IMGP5744

Merry Christmas!

The Chinese dream

22 Sep

The sign says “China’s dream, my dream”

In the last year or so the Communist party has had a campaign about “The Chinese Dream.”  From casual comments with my colleagues it really sounds like the stereotypical American dream.

The Chinese dream seems to include:

  1. Education for children
  2. Purchase of a house
  3. A stable job
  4. A better future

All of these things seem reasonable.  Who wouldn’t want these things?

And then you start to look under the surface.  Why is a campaign needed to promote these seemingly basic ideas?

The education system is one that is based purely on rote.  There is no imagination, no teamwork taught – the best students are those with the ability to memorize.  When I first came I constantly had to push my colleagues who went to the very best schools across the country to think for themselves, to push past my request to the next level.  Without the ability to think – what good is an education?

Everyone is getting one though – even my housekeeper’s son is now at university, something that no one could have even dreamed about 50 years ago.  The hope for a better future exists.

Housing purchase – in big cities if you don’t have family there to help, purchasing a house can be beyond the dreams of most individuals.  Right now where I live in Shanghai a 75 square meter apartment (about 1500 square feet) can sell for 3 to 4 million RMB which is over 500,000 USD.  The average monthly income in Shanghai is less than 1000 USD a month.  Is purchasing a house possible?  Or do you purchase a house so far in the suburbs that it takes over two hours each day to commute, by bus or subway?  Is that realistic?

Stability of jobs – most employees of multinational companies stay less than three years.  Job hopping has become acceptable – it is the new normal.  But – with new graduates the employer of choice is once again the government.  The ratio of applicants for the government exam to places was 100 to 1 in some locations.  Stability is wanted, but is it happening?

Everyone wants better for their children

Everyone wants better for their children

A better future – this I think in China is still possible.  The amount of change leads to opportunities that wouldn’t have even been dreams thirty years ago.  People with tenacity and smarts can accomplish a lot.  China is way beyond Deng Xiao Ping’s wishes of a bicycle for everyone.  The best technology in the world and an eager group of folks willing to work for more means that it will never be boring here.

I thought a lot about the Chinese Dream on my recent trip to Anhui province.  As I went further into rural China I could see the small shops and farmers drying rice and the constant changing occurring outside of the big cities.  It made me think that we are all people and whether you call it the Chinese dream or the American dream – it really is the same.  As you move up the ladder, we all want more.  It is difficult to feel satisfied, to say – “Enough is enough.”

Is the Chinese dream flashy lights?  Sometimes it seems so.

Is the Chinese dream flashy lights? Sometimes it seems so.

What is your dream?

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