November 27, 2007

Is Learning Mandarin Worth the Effort?

Perhaps not, opines The Economist.

In a few decades China may indeed overtake America as the world's top economic power. Will Britons who make the effort to learn its language be rewarded with better careers? Barring some kind of sea change in global language learning, the answer will almost always be no.
One reason, the article states, is because English is taught all over China beginning in grade school. In fact it's becoming compulsory even later in life:
Outside the classroom, too, there is widespread conviction that a child's prospects will be limited if he does not learn English. Senior managers with no capacity in the language are becoming a rarity. China's elite professionals are often bilingual because most of them went to university in America, Britain or Australia.
Of course, this article is purely from a business/resource perspective. If you just happen to like learning languages, you can ignore this article :-) It certainly won't stop me from trying to learn a few key phrases. Of course I'll be living there, which is a little different from taking Mandarin classes in Austin in the hopes that one day I'll be able to put those business skills to use. Anything I learn in the next six months will be applicable immediately. Plus, you know -- it's just fun :-)

In the interest of fairness, some guy has a rebuttal here.

November 26, 2007

The Secret of NiMH

That's why my digital camera can only take like 10 pictures with "regular" AA batteries. You're supposed to use these fancy-pants "NiMH" ones. Not even the extra-awesome nickel-cadmium batteries they sell on top of the Jin Mao tower will last as long.

(I really thought it was a problem with my camera.)

But the bigger problem was that I forgot my charger. Won't make that mistake again. Plus I bought 4 more higher-capacity batteries so I can always have fresh ones at my disposal.

But really, I just wanted to make this post because I thought of that subject line, and I think it's hilarious. Funnily enough, that movie is sitting downstairs next to the DVD player.

Today's vaccines (Typhoid begone!) were both intramuscular, so I'll be feeling them for a couple days. I really want to put little page-flags on my arm at the injection sites and write labels denoting which vaccines went where, so I can roll up my sleeves and become a museum exhibit. I've also begun packing.

On the right side of this blog, you'll now see a display of the local weather and a slideshow of pictures in my photo album. You can move your mouse over the slideshow and rewind, pause, or advance the show. AJAX for all!

November 21, 2007

Hey Kids, it's the Immunoglobulin Show!!!

Starring your favorite pals:

With special guests:
And everybody's favorite: E. coli!

But the best part about the travel clinic today was when the doctor said this to me:
I've never given this vaccine before, so I'm not sure how much it hurts. You'll have to tell me, so I can warn other people if it's extremely painful.
I don't think I've ever laughed so hard in a medical office before. I love being the guinea pig for these sorts of things. Luckily, the shot wasn't painful at all. (I showed her my two remaining ear piercings as proof of my high tolerance for needle pain.) The worst part was having to wait around for 30 minutes afterwards in case I had any adverse reactions.

It was also fun trying to determine whether Shanghai was in a malarial zone. That one stumped us for a couple minutes, because the map she had listed provinces, not cities. Luckily I remembered that Shanghai is administratively equal to a province, and sure enough, it was number 12 on the list of "provinces." And not in a malarial zone. Woohoo!!

Still though, I'm gonna have to get some bug spray like my man Joba Chamberlain.

November 19, 2007

A couple new pictures

I updated my album with a couple new pictures, mostly from our morning tour of The Bund. I still have some more left, so I'll update again when those are up.

November 10, 2007

Pictures, Part 1

Here are some of the pictures I managed to get on my camera before the batteries ran out. I'll have more up after my co-worker emails me the pictures I took with her camera.

Some highlights:

The shots from the Jin Mao are kind of hazy since, well, Shanghai is hazy :-)

See the full album.

Post-Op: I can Drink Tap Water Again!

Well, I just walked in my front door after 6 hours at the office, half an hour in a cab, 2 hours at Pudong, 14 hours on a plane, 6.5 hours at O'Hare (my flight got delayed twice), another 3-hour flight, and a ten-minute cab ride home. I maybe slept a total of 4 of those hours.

I picked up a sore throat on Wednesday night (it was probably that game of badminton), which morphed into a cold sometime Friday morning. This is odd for me because I have not been sick, not even a cold, since like April of 2005. Of course I was expecting something to happen in Shanghai, so if I can come away from a weeklong visit with just a cold, I think that's a good thing. At least I didn't get any wigglies :-)

I guess because the pressure in my sinuses/head is different than normal, my head and ears really hurt when landing both in Chicago and in Austin. It was pretty terrible. And my left ear was all stopped up for hours after I landed in Chicago. I've had small episodes of this phenomenon on planes but a good yawn always clears it right up. It's never been this bad.

I kept forcing a yawn because that usually helps relieve the pressure. But thank goodness I have a cold, because when I went to blow my nose, that pretty much fixed the problem :-) Unfortunately it offset my equilibrium for a couple seconds, so I was swaying in the airport bathroom. But when the air escapes it makes this neat little gurgling sound. I can hear it loud and clear because it's in my own head. But I wonder if anyone else can hear it? I doubt it, but that'd be kind of hilarious :-)

Anyway, I left out some stuff. In addition to what I posted before, I ate spicy duck tongue, chicken knuckles (chicken cartilage), sashimi, scallops, and okonomiyaki, which was delicious. These latter four dishes were at a Japanese place - I can't remember the name but I think it was on Huai Hai Lu. Anyway it was really good. I also had some nigiri-sushi, which has a dab of wasabi in it ... now I've had wasabi before in the States, but I guess it gets more authentic the closer you get to Japan. Because the wasabi in Shanghai incapacitated me for like 10 seconds :-)

I also had Papa John's and Pizza Hut; the former with pickles on top and the latter with some fish and squid on top. Mmmm, can't get that in the States. The pizza was good but definitely not the quality I'm used to here in America.

In what seems like an ongoing theme, the Pizza Huts in Shanghai are way nicer than in America. The one we went to, in the Thumb Plaza, seems like a good date restaurant. The decor is all modern and fancy-looking. It's not quite the atmosphere of an Olive Garden, but definitely closer to that than in the States.

Speaking of which, I made fun of the Shanghai HoJo Zhangjiang before I ever went there. Well, it's moreso that I made fun of the concept of this hotel as opposed to the hotel itself :-) I feel I owe it (the concept) an apology. It was a supremely nice hotel. Very slick and with great service. Awesome breakfast in the mornings (including sushi!). Probably one of the three nicest hotels I've ever stayed in. And everybody was so nice!

Pictures are coming soon!

November 6, 2007

Machine City

While being driven through certain parts of Shanghai at night, namely Pudong near my hotel, I see the towering apartment buildings with irregularly lit windows surrounded by a green haze and I am reminded of the Machine City from The Matrix.

I'm exhausted from so much food and from having heart palpitations every time I set butt in a taxi, and also from the irregular sleep (which I think is getting better), but I want to write down what happened on Sunday before I forget :-)

We indeed started out at the Jin Mao tower observation deck, 88 floors high. I took numerous pictures. I looked down into the atrium of the Grand Hyatt hotel (which covers the top 34 floors of the building) and get vertigo. I look up at the World Financial Center just across the street and can see the yellow hard hats of construction workers moving around on the 90th floor. Such great heights indeed.

At one point a guy comes over to me and starts talking at me in Chinese. I can't understand a word, obviously, but he drags me over to a replica of the Jin Mao and pulls my arm around his shoulder. I see his buddy getting ready with a camera, so I smile and pose for a quick photo. Ah, a photo of a replica of a skyscraper with an actual skyscraper of a white guy. Can't beat that :-)

Afterwards he starts trying to talk to me again, but all I can do is stand there and repeat "Okay... don't understand you ... sorry ..." I don't even know how to say these phrases in Mandarin. He hands me a piece of paper and a pen, and I'm not sure what to do, so I write my name on it: Ryan. His friend comes over and after some more misguided attempts at communication, says "Country. Country." They want to know where I'm from! I say "America! USA! " Not sure which one of those is more recognized. I even throw in a half-hearted "Texas!" (It turns out the phrase to use is mei guo, or "beautiful country," which refers to the USA. China is zhong guo, or "middle country.")

I buy some more batteries from my camera, a hat for my dad (shh don't tell him) and my co-workers and I head downstairs. We walk across the street and around the Pearl Tower when one of them notices an aquarium. He's a scuba diver so we jump at the opportunity to see what's inside the aquarium. We take the tour, which lasts about an hour and a half.

After that we are supremely hungry and walk to the Super Brand Mall (best name ever), 10 floors of shopping insanity. Restaurants are on the upper floors. We get to one that does not have English on the menus, so we are at the mercy of the pictures and our Chinese co-worker (a different one than the previous two days). What we think is beef, he tells us is rabbit (mmm). We order it anyway. The spicy tofu also is good.

Afterwards I'm very tired, so I get a coffee at Starbucks. I hate Starbucks coffee but I figure it might be different and/or better here. No such luck! But it wakes me up.

Afterwards we meet up with another co-worker and take a walk along the Pudong side of the Huangpu. Then we take a cab over to Xintiandi, this new-fangled upscale shopping center mixed-use development thingie. Among the things to do is the Shikumen museum, which we take about an hour to wander through. Shikumen is a style of dwelling that is unique to Shanghai in the 20s. The stores in Xintiandi are built inside Shikumen replicas, and the museum holds many domestic artifacts from actual Shikumen.

Then it was time for the coup de grace - the circus!!! We headed north to Shanghai Circus World and caught a performance of ERA, this Cirque du Soleil-esque acrobatics and dance show. Simply put, it was amazing. You know those circular cages where performers ride dirt bikes around the inside? They had EIGHT dirt bikesgoing around in this tiny cage. It was nuts. Definitely a great cap to the weekend. I'm pretty sure I fell asleep on the ride back to the hotel :-)

Monday and Tuesday I have been at the office all day and out eating tons of food at night. Those who know me know that I do so enjoy my food (perhaps less now than two years ago, but still) and Shanghai has some amazing cuisine. I've had drunk chicken, rabbit, fish cheek, pigeon, jellyfish, and some stuff I don't know what the heck it is. But it's all really good, and it comes in huge portions, and we eat family-style. Nice. My biggest surprise today was drinking corn juice. I had no idea such a thing existed. And it's served hot. And it's good.

I added a new phrase to my vocabulary: zai jian, or "goodbye." It's weird; I keep finding myself about to say something in Spanish a lot of the time. Like the other day I had a choice of beef or chicken, and I almost said "pollo." I guess that when I think "foreign language" my mind immediately goes to Spanish, since that is what I know the most of. But that won't get me very far here :-)

November 3, 2007

Mmmmm ....morphemes

A quick (incredibly simplified) Chinese lesson to impress your friends:

(Disclaimer: I may be making all of this up.)

"Nan" means south, "Dong" means east, "Xi" means west, "Bei" means north, "Shan" means mountains, "Lu" means road/street.

So Shanghai ("On the sea") is divided into two main sections: Puxi (west of the Huangpu) and Pudong (east of the Huangpu), where I think "Pu" is short for the "Huangpu" river (Huangpu jiang). Someone can correct me on this if I'm wrong, or I'll ask my friend later.

Shanxi province means "west of the mountains," Shandong is east of the mountains.

As I mentioned in the previous post, "Nanjing Dong Lu" refers to the east side of Nanjing Road. Nanjing Xi Lu is the west side. "Nanjing" itself means "Southern Capital" .

Pop quiz, hotshot: what does "Beijing" mean?

Day Two

So, last night I slept fine, but just now I woke up at 5 AM and couldn't get back to sleep. I'm also really hungry :-) I knew this would happen, so I'm not surprised. I figured I'd take the opportunity to talk about what I did yesterday.

My coworkers and I started our day on the metro to Nanjing Dong Lu (Nanjing East Road), the famous shopping street. The sidewalks were packed with people walking here and there, buying things and selling things as well. I learned another phrase in Mandarin, one that came in handy numerous times: "bu yao xiexie," or "no thank you, i don't want it." This phrase came in handy because street vendors offered me everything from postcards to fliers to DVDs as we walked down the road. Every 10 feet or so was another person hawking their wares outside of stores. Most were toys; I saw these balls that you throw on the ground, and they disintegrate into a puddle of goo, only to re-form again 5 seconds later. Those werre actually pretty cool :-) We walked by the famous Peace Hotel.

Nanjing Road terminates at The Bund, where I got some nice photography of that iconic Pudong skyline. We walked the length of the promenade on the side of the Huangpu River, taking in the sites and just looking at everything as we passed by. Again, I must have said "bu yao xiexie" dozens of times. If you say it while not actually looking at the person and while putting your hand up with the palm facing outward (the universal sign for "stop"), it's even more effective.

From the Bund we ventured into the Nanshi ("Old City" colloquially, although "Nanshi" means "Southern City"), another popular tourist destination. Here the crowds became more thick and at times it was hard to move. I was worried about pickpockets, but my wallet and camera survived okay. Nanshi is full of the pagoda-style buildings that everyone associates with China, but they're all facades. The buildings are as modern as you and me, modern enough to house three Starbucks, a Dairy Queen, and a Juice Zone among jewelry shops and other tourist traps :-)

We wandered past the Yu Yuan (Yu Gardens) and across the Bridge of Nine Turnings, past the Huxingting (Midlake Pavilion), a famous tea house. We gazed at some of the shop stalls. At some point our nostrils were assaulted from all sides by this terrible stench; I was informed that was stinky tofu. An apt moniker if I ever heard one. We saw people eating small, fried birds in a cup. I mean like, the whole bird :-)

At some point we decided lunch was in order, so we entered this famous dim sum place in Nanshi called Lu Bo Lang (Green Wave Pavilion). It is so famous, we stood in line for nearly an hour! My legs were killing me by this point :-) But the dumplings were amazing, and so was the egg soup. I'm pretty good about eating stuff here; if I see something that looks interesting, I'll just take a bite and see if it's good. So far that's served me well.

After lunch we entered the City God Temple, a Daoist shrine to Huo Guang. Many Chinese were there, bowing and praying to the statues (which are enormous and beautiful).

We exited Nanshi and took a cab over to People's Park, where we walked around a lot and saw the outsides of the Shanghai Museum and the Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art. In the middle of the park, we came across several dozen older people chatting and holding signs. I wondered what was going on, and my co-worker who speaks/reads Mandarin guessed that it was that activity where the parents of busy young single Shanghainese get together to match up their sons and daughters on dates! I was really amused because I heard a story about this practice on NPR not too long ago. (That link is to a story from 2006, but they must have re-ran or updated it recently.) And here I was witnessing it. Awesome.

In this part of the city you can see a lot of the different styles of architecture that comprise the skyscrapers. There doesn't appear to be any uniformity or clarity of design. I thought about it though and decided that what I enjoyed was the variety of styles, even if they are mashed together unappealingly. Regardless of aesthetic, it's neat to be able to turn your head and see a building with wavy sides right next to one with a towering spire.

One co-worker had expressed a desire to see a Chinese acrobatic show. We headed into the metro and ended up at the Shanghai Center Theater. There was no show that day so we're going to try today instead. We were a bit hungry again so we walked a bit to Element Fresh, this hip cafe that's in the middle of a shopping center/luxury hotel complex. The waitstaff spoke English. I had a peanut butter/banana/chocolate smoothie while giving a small dissertation on the various types of electronic music :-) I definitely saw more expats in here than anywhere else so far. I'm not surprised because just down the street was a Gucci store right next to a Marc Jacobs store. I'm pretty sure I've never seen a Gucci store in my life; now I can't say that anymore :-)

After that we were feeling sleepy, so we took the metro to Zhangjiang High Technology Park and hailed a cab from there. Luckily this time the cabbie knew where my hotel was on the first try. Just in case though I'd remembered I had a small map that my office provided me.

After being out and about for so long, I was tired, so after some ESPN I immediately went to sleep. At least I got a good 7 or 8 hours in before I woke up :-)

Today I want to go to the Jinmao Tower and also try and find the Shanghai Jewish Center.

November 2, 2007

Out & About

Two coworkers and I went out to dinner last night. They picked me up at my hotel in a cab. Apparently my hotel is very new (I think it opened in May) and so not a lot of cabbies know where it is yet. Also it's in an out-of-the way place, so that didn't help. So they had gotten lostand turned around a number of times :-)

We headed out into traffic - I must repeat how glad I am that I'm not driving! People are on bicycles, with no reflectors or helmets, standing in the middle of intersections as cars whiz around them. Motorbikes try and angle for the best spots possible, which is often in between 2 lanes of cars. Cars change lanes quickly, and while very close to other cars (or people or bikes) and often without signaling. I guess you have to be very alert as a driver.

Traffic signals are generally followed but the goal seems to be to move forward as quickly as possible (which is funny since we're in a metered cab) regardless of what's in front of you. For examples, if a car is stopped in front of you with its left turn signal on, it's acceptable to swerve around (on its left side!) if if you're going straight. I guess it's possible the driver is not actually turning left , so you might be safe :-)

I gasped and cringed a lot. My co-worker (who's been here 2 years) just laughed and said the only thing that shocks her now is an actual accident. I guess she's seen surprisingly few of those.

Crossing the street, you'd better look both ways. Cars making a right-hand turn often try and find gaps in between groups of people crossing perpendicular to them. You better not be in that gap! Pedestrians seem to have the right of way, but drivers like to make you fight for that right :-)

I changed $25 into about 180 RMB at the hotel'sfront desk. I'm pretty sure this is the first foreign currency I've ever held that's actually mine. My dad used to bring back francs from Europe, and I have seen/held shekels from Israel, and everyone's seen pesos or Canadian dollars (loonies!) but those were like gifts or trinkets because I was in the USA. These RMB are actually going to buy me stuff :-)

My hotel has a TV that gets about 6 english-language channels, including ESPN and HBO. I watched a bit of Serenity this morning.

Anyway, we ate some dim sum at a shopping center on Nanjing West Road last night. The food was very good (I haven't been sick yet). Since we took a cab out to there, we decided to take the metro back to the last stop and then hail a cab from there. Taking the metro was pretty smooth, especially since I'm used to the system in Washington DC / Northern VA. You get a fare card, insert it in the turnstiles, and go on your way. Prices seem to be fixed depending on where you start and where you're going, which again is like the DC system. But you also can use your metro fare card on the bus or in the taxi, which seems very helpful.

In fact, just walking around the shopping center area, and using the metro, really felt like I was back in DC. Just a very large city, with lots of people and good public transportation. I liked it. Of course Shanghai is at least 5 times the size of DC, and we were only in a small portion of it. And fewer people speak English here ;-) But the overall feeling was very familiar.

In the distance we saw the Pearl Tower, the Jinmao Tower, and the future World Financial Center. They looked enormous, and they were still many miles away.

Taking the taxi back to my hotel was an adventure. We dropped one coworker off just fine, but I'm staying in a different hotel. Which, you might recall, is somewhat difficult to find :-) So we drove around the area for like 10 minutes, getting very lost. Luckily my co-worker knows a smattering of Mandarin and was able to converse with the driver, or at leastunderstand his frustrations at getting lost.

Finally we called the hotel from the road and all was well. But I felt incredibly useless sitting in the front seat, not able to understand the driver (except for when he said "sorry" over and over) but understanding the fact that we were lost. If my coworker hadn't been there, it would have been a long (and expensive) trip.

Interesting :-)

I went to sleep just fine at about 10 PM and woke up around 8:30. Today I've had breakfast at the hotel (very good) and learned how to say "good morning" in Mandarin. I imagine that the hotel staff are used to white people practicing Mandarin, poorly, on them. They're very nice about it. So my vocabulary is up to 3 phrases: good morning, hello, and thank you. My goal is to learn a couple more phrases before I leave.

In about an hour my coworkers and I are going to hit up The Bund and then do some sightseeing from there. My camera's rechargeable batteries seem to have failed, so my co-worker is going to try and bring some AAs. If not, I'm sure I can buy some somewhere.

Tally ho!


After many many manyhours on a plane, I've arrived safely in the Pearl of the Orient. Let me just say one thing -- I'm glad I'm not driving over here :-)

The flight was painless. I watched a lot of movies and TV on the in-flight entertainment system. There was even a cool feature where you could track the flight's progress on a map of the Earth. GPS system I guess. At one point I was able to look out the window and see -- Siberia. How awesome is that? I never thought I'd see Siberia, ever :-)

I'm not even really tired. Maybe it's the adrenaline working. I'm sure I'll crash out tonight :-)