July 27, 2008




July 25, 2008

A Transformative Moment in Chinese

Learning how to say "Sorry, you have the wrong number."


Just booked the travel arrangements for 澳门 (Aòmén, "Doorway to the sea", Macau). While I will get to do some tourism there, the main reason I'm going is to finally catch up with Jen, after a near-miss in Beijing and and her unexpectedly-long stay in America. I'll also get to see The Sound of Music, which is great because I've never seen it before.

So weekends in August already are pretty full. The 8th - 9th I'll be entertaining my dad's cousin Bennett and his family who will be visiting Shanghai en route to the Olympics. On the 15th - 17th I'll be in Macau. And from the 22nd - 24th I'll be in Huangshan.

Can't wait to see where I go the rest of my time here :-)

Lots of expats are making noise about the new Batman movie. Everyone keeps saying how good Heath Ledger is as The Joker. But the main topic is that it's not being shown in theaters here, unlike Hancock which a bunch of my friends saw. (I wonder how many scenes were edited out though.) People are saying it's something you have to see in the theaters, which rules out one popular option for watching movies. Some people are even talking about making a trip to Hong Kong specifically to see the movie. Sheesh. It can't be that good -- can it?

I ate dinner last night with 9 other people. Our total bill? About 250 RMB (~$36), or 25 RMB per person. The food wasn't stellar, but it was good Sichuan cuisine, and at $3.60, a definite friggin' bargain. It made the 480-RMB-for-three-people dinner I had tonight seem like I was giving away a kidney or something, espeically since the food was relatively worse than yesterday's (even though we got a boat of sushi, woohoo!)

Ummm and I got a wireless router, so I can 上网 (shàngwǎng, "surf the Internet") from my sofa. That's pretty kickass, if I say so myself. I got it at Best Buy, so I probably paid like 3x what I should have, but I know it's quality first-brand material and I can return it if it explodes or something like that.

July 23, 2008

Morning TV

I have become super familiar with several English-language TV shows here in Shanghai. I wake up each morning at 7:30, which is just enough time to catch part of Culture Matters. It's a panel discussion style show, mostly with expats talking about their experiences in China. I've seen stylish women talking about fashion-type things, parents talking about how they raise their children, and recruiters for Yale talking about what they look for in candidates. (Yale and Fudan University have some sort of joint partnership thingie going on, I guess.) It's definitely not entertaining or interesting, but it's in English and it's not CCTV-9 so I tune in. My standards are lowered a bit I suppose.

What usually comes on next is You Are the Chef featuring the lovely Heidi Dugan. I'll admit I can't get enough of her Australian accent :-) It's a short 15 or 20-minute cooking show where Heidi watches and comments (and snacks) as chefs at 5-star restaurants prepare meals. They go shopping for ingredients beforehand at a local supermarket, so if you wanted to, you could follow them and get the ingredients yourself. Because it's so short, most everything is pre-prepared, so I don't see a whole lot of cooking going on. What's neat about this show is that you see chefs of many different nationalities. For the past month or so the show has been filming in Hainan, so they've been making many tropical dishes have been showing lots of pictures of Heidi's daughter splashing around in pools and on the playground, haha.

Up next usually is Life Source, hosted by Viviana. This is your typical fashion/cooking/lifestyle show, with tips on decorating your house, dressing stylishly, getting that beautiful spa treatment, sewing t-shirts for your poodles, and so on. They definitely focus on expats in the city, I think because doing so allows them to talk to more well-off people who have fabulous houses filled with art-deco furniture, crazy art, and whatnot. Of course it's these lifestyles that make for the most interesting television :-) I think this morning there was a bit about gardening, and how to turn straw hats into plant holders? Something like that, I can't remember really. (Remember, I'm like half-awake when I watch these things.) They also feature cool things like interview a local group who runs an animal adoption agency. So it's not all fluff, although, it mostly is.

These shows are all jumbled around though; there doesn't seem to be any pre-determined schedule for what comes on when. Some mornings I'll turn it on and there'll be a pre-recorded golf or soccer game (although not so much anymore now that the Euro Cup is over) playing. So that's pretty boring. There's also the occasional episode of Power Sports, hosted by a guy whose English accent really sets me on edge.

Speaking of which, all the hosts' spoken English is really good. What gets me is, like, most of the time they will put the emphasis on the wrong parts of the sentence, or even speak in a monotone. It doesn't sound natural. This makes them sound like they're terrible actors, when really it's probably just that, if you're not a native speaker, you don't know how these sentences are supposed to sound. But anyway, like I said, the English of the host of Power Sports just hits me the wrong way for some reason. Damn perfectionism :-) Anyway it's not like my Chinese is any better than his English, so I shouldn't complain. But I can't help it :-)

Umm and recently they began showing episodes of Hannah Montana at 8 AM on the dot. Luckily by this time I'm on my way out the door. But oh lord it's terrible. I don't want Chinese girls (or guys, come to think of it) watching this and thinking that's how Americans speak and how life is over there. And yet one of the ways the announcers promote the show is "Learn the latest sayings on American campus!" Hearing that makes my brain hurt.

That's about all the TV I watch. I don't watch any TV except for these couple shows in the morning. I guess I use them as a way to transition into consciousness.

Another TV show I catch sometimes, mostly on accident though, is a show on CCTV-9 that teaches Chinese via sports themes. The show is hosted by a Canadian guy named Mark Rowswell, but Chinese people here know him better by his stage name, 大山 (Dàshān, or "Big Mountain"). I had no idea, but this guy is really famous in China. He won everyone over in the 90s by becoming a master at xiangsheng, a kind of comedy-as-art-form that involves heavy wordplay and is difficult to master for a native speaker, let alone a foreigner. In fact, I was spekaing with my co-workers about this guy, before I knew he was super famous. My co-worker said that Dashan was the first foreigner he ever saw, on TV when he was little. That's pretty impressive.

Anyway Dashan is completely masterful at Chinese -- even I can tell that just from watching this program. I bet you $5 he will have some prominent role in the Olympics, so if you watch that, look out for a tall Canadian guy. That'll be Mark.

If you're curious, you can see some of his videos on YouTube.

July 20, 2008

We Have Good Weather Here, Too

The weather gods gave me two good weeks in Austin, and then I returned to an amazing week in Shanghai.

Click each pic for access to the full-size view.

Clear Weather

Clear Weather

Clear Weather

Clear Weather

Clear Weather

No smog for the day has benefits at night, too:

Lujiazui at Night

July 13, 2008

An Ode

Okay, not really. As I was wrapping up my American life in November / December I realized that bringing 100+ CDs with me to Shanghai was impractical. The CD case is pretty large and heavy. Not only that, as I didn't have a portable CD player and didn't feel like buying one, the option would leave me tuneless for the 14-hour plane ride (which was still a scary mystery at that point). But mainly it was the thought of keeping track of many small physical objects in the course of moving to, and living in, China.

So I bought an 80 GB iPod and ripped most of my CD collection to MP3. Of course the first iPod came out in 2001, 7 years ago, but I'd not bought one (or any MP3 player) up until that point. The reason was that I had a CD player everywhere I wanted to listen to music. All my music needs were met with CDs.

But the iPod has changed all that. It's perfect for me in so many ways. I commence now with a numbered list for your organizational enjoyment:
  1. It holds my entire music collection with room for tons more. Right now I have 1,469 songs or 11.34 gigs of music loaded on there, enough for almost 6 days of non-repeat playtime. I can duplicate that 7 times over ...
  2. ... but not really, since it also stores video, and I many episode of TV shows on there. Videos are handy for the plane rides and when I got a divorce that one time.
  3. No physical media to mess with. No jewel cases and liner notes to buy and then discard. CDs to get lost or broken or stolen. And if my iPod gets lost or broken or stolen, I can just buy a new one, since my media collection is duplicated on my laptop. (If my laptop gets lost or broken or stolen, my media's backed up to an external hard drive.)
  4. Using iTunes (and Amazon for DRM-free stuff) to buy music means I don't have to worry about finding an American CD store in Shanghai (or anywhere else I happen to travel).
  5. It's small and fits in my pocket.
  6. It gets near constant use every day in Shanghai as I move about the city. Especially on boring metro rides or long walks home from work. The battery is good for almost a full day of music. From the number of people I see wearing earbuds, I'm not the only one.
So I'm done with CDs. When I go back to the States and buy a car, I'm going to get one with a line-in on the stereo so I can just use my iPod. Ditto with any sort of home stereo I buy.

July 11, 2008

Racist Toothpaste

Good morning, folks! It's time for another installment of everybody's favorite series:

You'd Never See that in America

(Previous episode here.)

Today's episode:

A friend of mine found this a long time ago, but I just remembered about it today, and of course, I wanted to present it to you myself.

Racist Toothpaste

Just freaking imagine this item being on sale in the US. Now imagine, as I am, the protests, the backlash, the strongly-worded letters-to-the-Editor of the NYT.

It's not even like the name "DARLIE" is accidental. The Chinese characters under the name read:

hei1 ren2 ya2 gao4 - "Black Person Toothpaste".


Some more research uncovers the Wikipedia article on this phenomenon. Yes, it used to actually be called "Darkie" before the k switched to an l. What's supremely interesting is that, Colgate owns the brand, and has since 1985. Can you believe that?? I can't really. Just imagine if Jesse Jackson knew. It kind of makes me not want to use Colgate anymore. I'll just stick to Mentadent, thank you, but I'm on my last tube and I didn't buy anymore when I was in the US.

Chunky Air

I'm not sure if the following observation is a consequence of living in a big city, living in China, or some unholy combination of both factors. But some places in this city really stink. And I don't mean "stink" as in "are not fun or enjoyable". I mean stink as in "What the fuck died here, did it poop everywhere while doing so, and how long have the remains been lying around?"

For instance, the corner of Dingxiang and Changliu, just outside my apartment complex, routinely smells like butt. (Strangely enough, Dingxiang means "Fragrant flower.") I'm not sure what it is, but I've never felt the urge to investigate, and so it remains a mystery (that I actively try to avoid). And there are many times walking around the city that you'll accidentally get a whiff of something rotten, foul, or just plain nasty. (I'm not even talking about stinky tofu here, but smelling that in certain places doesn't really help things. There used to be a stall that sold it outside the Zhangjiang Gao Ke metro station, which meant my olfactory senses were bludgeoned repeatedly every single day after work, but I don't smell it there anymore, which either means the stall closed or my nasal receptors have shrivelled up and died, but I don't think the latter is the case, because I smelled it in the Yu yuan area about three weeks ago and, unfortunately, the scent came through just fine.) But really I'm making this post because I exited the Pudong airport yesterday at the ground level, looking for a taxi after my flight back. As I stepped outside, I was greeted with two unpleasant sensations:
  1. The intense humidity making it feel like I was swimming in vat of lukewarm Jello
  2. The overpowering smell of poop
For #2 there, I mean it literally smelled like poop, which, if you're me, and you've just finished over 24 hours of solid travelling, particularly from a city with clear blue skies and (relatively) fresh air, and the last 13 hours of that travelling was spent drifting in and out of consciousness on a metal tube hurtling through the sky at 550 miles an hour, and you're not looking forward to jet lag, and a cab driver has just attempted to take advantage of your whiteness by overcharging you up front for the trip to your house (of course I told him to take a hike) -- is just like the icing on the cake.

A really stinky cake.

Whence did this foul odor originate? I have no idea. And it because the stench permeated the cab stand area, I had no choice but to ride it out while I waited. (I didn't want to haul my luggage into and off of the MagLev.) Luckily I have learned to vent my frustrations (perhaps an unfortunate choice of words there, but there is no pun intended, I assure you) by learning how to say "Too smelly!" in Chinese: Tai chou le.

For those readers whom I convinced to visit me, well, I hope this doesn't dissuade you. Just be aware.

I will say that flying China Eastern airlines was great. They gave us really good food and were very nice. Because I was like the 4th person to check in (yay for 4-hour layovers at LAX) I got to sit in the exit row, which meant extended leg room on the A380 they used for the flight. The flight was not full - several people spent the whole flight supine across the six seats in the middle aisle. Lucky.

I read (it's now standard for me to start and finish an entire book in one flight), listened to some music, talked to my seat-mate a bit, and watched a movie whose only saving grace was the presence of John C. McGinley, which meant it was easy to pretend like I was watching Scrubs. Actually I lie, it was also fun to ponder the irony and sociological implications of one of gangsta rap's originators acting in a derivative suburban family comedy.

It's 7:30 AM and it's really muggy in my apartment. Because I don't have central A/C, only the unit in my bedroom is on. When I open the door, it's like diving into a bowl of tomato soup. Yes, the air feels chunky.


July 8, 2008

Six Down, Six to Go

Six months gone in a flash. Luckily I have the pictures and blog entries to prove I did something worthwhile :-)

This visit to Austin has been fantastic. I got re-acquainted with friends and family and co-workers. I met new ones (of each type). I remembered what it's like to live and work in Austin. I got a tan. I went to Barton Springs. I went to Hamilton Pool. I went downtown. I played trivia. I shot pool. I saw a movie at the Drafthouse. I watched a baseball game. I ate Mexican, Tex-Mex, and BBQ. I ate a sandwich, for gosh sakes. A ham sandwich on buttered toast with bacon, mushrooms, and tomatoes. Ohhh. I bought a ton of books at BookPeople. I read the Chronicle. I drank non-Starbucks coffee.

I. Saw. The. Sky. That's probably the biggest thing I noticed. My vision isn't hemmed in by towering skyscrapers everywhere. I can see miles into the distance in any direction. Acres of green trees replace the constructs of metal and glass. And, who'd have guessed, the sky is actually blue, not sheet-metal gray. And it's got clouds, nice fluffy clouds, that make shapes and change colors and provide such a nice contrast and focal point when you look ... up.

I took the pictures to prove it.

On the 4th I was walking around downtown, taking some pictures of the Capitol, when I chanced to overhear "Yi, Er, San ..." that is "One, Two, Three" in Chinese! I turned around and sure enough, some Chinese people were taking pictures on the lawn. One "Nimen shi Zhongguoren ma?" later and we were talking a bit in Chinese. That was very fun :-)

All in all, a fantastic, amazing, wonderful, and sure-to-be-missed trip.

July 1, 2008


So, one 13-hour flight, 5-hour layover, 2.5-hour flight, and post-flight-travel-arrangements later, I'm sitting in my hotel in Austin. Being home is ... surprisingly normal. I was wrong about it feeling strange. The novelty of seeing familiar faces was good but lasted for only a short while. Now I feel, well, I live here. I suppose that's a good thing. That I can feel so comfortable so easily in two very disparate locations :-)

Sunday was nice. I ate lunch with Kevin. We went to Curra's, this fantastic Mexican establishment on Oltorf St. Then we went to my old apartment to see my old roommate/landlord. I took a tour of the place to see what he'd done with my old room and studio. They're looking nice. The three of us spent a couple hours just bullshitting. I flashed back on the fact that I lived there for two years. Relived some moments. And kept telling myself that I've only been gone for 6 months. Sometimes it feels like a short amount of time; other times it feels like it's been much longer.

Afterwards I picked up a copy of The Onion (whose RSS feed, for whatever reason, doesn't work in China) and the Austin Chronicle and set out for Mozart's to read in the late-afternoon sunshine. It was wonderful. I felt compelled to buy a Mozart's t-shirt to wear around Shanghai and hopefully identify fellow Austinites ;-) Then Shawna and some of her friends and I ate dinner at the Hula Hut. Then we went back to her place to play Wii bowling, and I totally would have won the second game (turkey!!) if a thunderstorm hadn't interrupted us by cutting out the power. I claim victory nonetheless :-)

I didn't sleep at all on Sunday night. Literally, not at all. I alternated between lying in bed awake and reading. At 7 AM I decided to get up and partake of my hotel's "breakfast" (consisting of hard bagels, bananas, and coffee). Then I headed into work.

Work has changed in many ways. Many people have left, and we've hired many new people as a result. So, there are many strange faces, both on my team and around the rest of the building. That is inevitable though in any organization. Still, when someone I know leaves NI, it always shocks me a bit, because it's like, disrupting a small part of my known universe ;-) My team is sitting in a different location than before I left (and likely will be in another spot when I return for good). Some of the cafeteria workers appear to have left also.

But by and large, many of the familiar faces I left are still here. I spent a good long while walking around to my former teammates and saying hello. Then I gave a lunchtime presentation to many of them about Shanghai and the Chinese language. It felt good. I was really nervous about doing it, but I think it turned out okay.

I also didn't really think about this, but I came home at a good time. We have off work on Thursday and Friday, so I only have to use my brain for three days this week ;-)

This morning I was up at 3:45 but I didn't mind because I went to bed around 8 PM, so I feel that qualifies at 8 hours of sleep :-)

Speaking of sleep, this is a sleepy little town. I always thought of Austin as a rather large city, because it was the largest I'd ever lived in. But compared to Shanghai, this place is a piddling little backwater truck stop. Driving along I-35 I saw the Frost Bank Tower, the (now second-)tallest building in Austin, and was like aww, one single 33-story building. "It thinks it's a city! How cuuuuute!" Now that's not necessarily a bad thing. One reason I enjoyed Austin before is its nice blend of big-city nightlife and culture with a relaxed small-town vibe. That appears to be intact. It's just that I have a different perspective now -- I'm used to some insane hustle-and-bustle.